RICHMOND — As three candidates vie for a three-year seat on the Richmond School Committee in this Saturday's annual town election, major decisions await them on the future of the 177-student, pre-K to Grade 8 school.
The three are vying for the seat vacated by incumbent Bianca Daigle. Other town positions on the ballot, including selectman, are uncontested. Polls will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. in Town Hall.
A 15-member Long Range Sustainability Committee has started exploring four options regarding the future of the Richmond Consolidated School:
• Maintaining the highly-rated Level 1 school as it is;
• Closing the school to non-residents;
• Closing the middle school and tuitioning-out students to neighboring districts.
• Shutting down the school entirely.
The school currently projects enrollment of 165 for the 2016-17 academic year. According to School Committee Chairman Jim Biancolo, 97 students, or 59 percent, would be non-residents while 68 are local.
The bond that financed the renovation of the school building on Route 41 will be paid off in 2020, leading to long-range planning, including the possible incorporation of Town Hall offices, said Linda Morse, president of the Richmond Civic Association.
Nearly 46 percent of the $6,740,000 town budget is allotted to school spending. Annual town meeting voters approved $3,096,176 in total school spending for the 2017 fiscal year, including special education tuition. The school budget of $3,427,100 includes revenue from school choice, tuition and grants.
Candidate Julia Sabourin, director of administrative services during the last two years of Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi's administration, said her "first and foremost" priority is keeping the school open.
"It's one of the best in the state and to close it would be a real disservice to Richmond and to school choice students," she said in an interview. "I really value its presence in Richmond."
Sabourin called for a comprehensive feasibility study on "the best way to keep it open" with moving out the middle school students as a possible option.
"I want to do a study before commenting" on the options, she said. "While all options should be considered, I'm not in support of closing the school."
Candidate Paula Patterson emphasized that "we need to decide or plan for what we'll do about Town Hall. That's obviously a multimillion dollar issue."
She described Town Hall as "in terrible shape. We can't just fix what we have."
Noting school choice enrollment, she cited the school's "extremely large building, which we cannot touch for town purposes until the school bond is paid off in 2020. All these things are happening at the same time, it doesn't make it easy."
Patterson, a member of the Long-Range Sustainability Committee, recommended that shared services with a neighboring district be considered.
She described the committee's goal as recommending "actions to be pursued now and going forward that will provide long-term sustainable and financially stable services reflecting the will of the community."
"My participation on this committee has exposed me to all the elements of change facing Richmond," Patterson added. "If elected to the School Committee, I will utilize my skills and experience to develop a long-range plan and strategies to deal with projected demographic challenges facing the school."
"We have to decide whether the school should be kept the way it is or become elementary only," she said. "Some people want to close the school and tuition everybody. Those are all on the burner, there's no quick fix. The bottom line is, what does Richmond want to pay for" in terms of town spending on a school with a majority of non-resident pupils.
Patterson, a former upper-level manager handling employee benefit programs for Fortune 100 companies, served for eight years on the Richmond Planning Board.
Adeline Ellis, an attorney with a practice in Great Barrington focusing on family law, said that if elected, she would "explore every option to keep the school open. I recognize the financial obligations that might be imposed and the fact that the community views need to be properly identified and assessed."
"While the demographics of the town may be changing," she pointed out, "it is important to consider whether that means that the fabric and identity of the town should change as well."
Noting nearly 200 years of continuous school operation in the town, Ellis declared: "That says something about how ingrained the school presence has been in the fabric of town life. It is very important to find out whether the community views this as just a dollars-and-cents issue or something more integral to what makes our town so special to all of us that have chosen to live here."
While incorporating the Town Hall and/or the library into the existing school building "certainly makes sense to consider," she pointed to the cost of the necessary renovations and "the impact that it might have on young children and teachers alike since it is quite likely that dual use would change the character of the school."
Ellis, who has a master's in education from Columbia University in addition to her law degree from City University of New York, taught in Manhattan's public schools before relocating to Richmond.
"I am open to whatever the community ultimately may decide," she stated in an e-mail, "but certainly I am 100 percent in favor finding some way to keep a school presence in town."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.