Berkshire Trail Elementary School in Cummington to close at end of school year

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DALTON >> Berkshire Trail Elementary School in Cummington will close after the 2014-15 school year.

After a nearly four-hour meeting at Nessacus Regional Middle School, a divided Central Berkshire Regional School District School Committee on Thursday narrowly voted to close the school, which currently houses 74 students in pre-Kindergarten through Grade 5 and a staff of 18.

The majority of students who attend the school will be bused to Craneville Elementary School in Dalton starting next September.

The 8-6 vote followed presentations by Superintendent Robert Putnam and Business Administrator Melissa Falkowski, both of which painted the picture of a district in a serious financial bind. According to preliminary budget projects, the closure of Berkshire Trail will result in $700,000 in savings off the fiscal 2016 budget.

"It is not my dream or agenda to consolidate schools," Putnam said. "My position is based on my obligation as an educational leader to respond to the realities of declining enrollments and the budget in a responsible manner, while retaining as my No. 1 priority educational quality for all students."

Without the closure, preliminary budget figures showed a level-funded budget would top $27.5 million in fiscal 2016 — almost $1 million more than the current $26.5 million budget, which barely passed muster with voters in the seven towns included in the district. Projected increases of 40 percent in energy costs and 10 percent in employee health insurance, along with depleted excess and deficiency funds, were cited as factors leading to the budget increase. The jump would have caused a 10 percent increase in CBRSD assessments to member towns.

Even with the $700,000 in savings the closure is expected to produce, district assessments to member towns stand to jump 6 percent in fiscal 2016, a figure sure to trigger the need for Proposition 2 1/2 override votes in a number of member towns — votes that, historically speaking, stand little chance of passing.

Another $246,000 in cuts would drop the projected assessment increases to 4 percent, which voters might accept, and almost another $450,000 on top of that to drop it to a target 1 percent. The administration also would likely look to programming and staff cuts at Wahconah High School.

Since 2002, student enrollment in the district has fallen 26 percent to 1,739 while the budget increased by 37.5 percent, Dalton Finance Committee Chairman Terry Williams told the gathering.

And a recent study by the New England School Development Council, which looked at new births, housing and other data, found the district would lose 300 students in less than a decade, resulting in further budget problems plus excess capacity in schools.

The study suggested a number of options, all of which include closing smaller elementary schools in Cummington, Hinsdale or Becket. Some think further consolidation of the district — closures of Becket Washington Elementary School in Becket or Kittredge Elementary School in Hinsdale — is unavoidable. Putnam acknowledged that such decisions would not be off the table.

Still, Thursday's vote was met with concern and skepticism among parents and some officials.

Committee member John Conner, a representative of Hinsdale who voted against the closure, called the potential savings "a spit in the can" and advocated for savings through staff reductions and structural changes to the district.

"The problem is we're trying to cut our costs on the backs of the students and parents of one elementary school," Conner said. "How about we get together and do what we have to do as a committee and stop messing around? We cannot go any longer."

Committee member John Les, a Becket representative, tried to put the vote off for one year but his motion failed. New committee member Jessie Robertson-Dubois, of Dalton, also opposed the closure and unsuccessfully tried several to find an alternative avenue.

Committee member Billie Henderson of Dalton, who favored the closure, put the vote in stark terms.

"A vote to close Berkshire Trail is a vote for education," Henderson said. "A vote to keep it open is just irresponsible."

Dozens of Cummington parents and other residents of the town who attended the meeting gathered in the Nessacus hallways immediately following the vote saying "I hope they know what they're doing" and "what will we do now?"

Many of them, during the comment period before the vote, had argued passionately for more time.

Christine Doktor, an attorney who lives in Cummington, said closing the school would "disrupt the community" and called the supporting evidence insufficient.

"Our preference, of course, is to have the school in our town forever and ever, amen," Doktor said. "We're not going to ask you for that. But we are going to ask you for a little more time."

Additional time, she said, could be used to develop an overarching district plan for its staff, students, schools and communities.

"This is not an impossible request. It's reasonable. You can do this; we can do this," Doktor said. "Cummington is willing to make truly significant change in order to help make this happen."

Consolidation of grades within the school would have been one of the changes. Other town residents made similar comments.

But the committee — after considering the closure of the district's smallest school on and off for more than a decade — ultimately found the arguments too little too late.

Putnam said flat state aid to the district for at least a dozen years, a depleted excess and deficiency account — which had in recent years been used as a revenue source — and other dried up revenue sources posed realities that must be dealt with.

And draconian program and staffing cuts — primarily at Wahconah Regional High School — were the only alternatives to closing the school, Putnam and the district's attorney said.

The district's lease on the Berkshire Trail building will expire on Sept. 1, 2015. Putnam said if an alternative, in-town location is found to house the Berkshire Trail pre-K program — funded at no cost thanks to grants — then the program could be continued.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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