Lanesborough officials seek answers to future school costs
By Phil Demers
Berkshire Eagle Staff
LANESBOROUGH -- Staring down a multimillion dollar potential high school renovation, the Lanesborough Select Board and Town Administrator Paul Sieloff suggested means of defraying future school costs in a meeting at Town Hall on Thursday.
Primary ideas included the addition of surrounding towns to Mount Greylock Regional School District, of which only Williamstown and Lanesborough are members, though surrounding towns' students attend in significant numbers.
These towns -- New Ashford, Richmond and Hancock -- would then share in the district's capital expenses, like the long-desired and possibly forthcoming renovation/rebuild of Mount Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown.
Next, town officials expressed preference for renovation of the existing high school or, if rebuilt, making it smaller to suit the downtrending Berkshires' population.
The former idea, growing the district, "ultimately, I think, is the answer," Sieloff said.
"There are benefits in having more towns directly involved with the district," Sieloff said. "There's extra aid available, both operating and building aid, and the [joining] towns would have the ability to participate in shaping the policies and planning of the school."
In view of this, Sieloff invited school and town officials of New Ashford, Richmond and Hancock, many of whom attended Thursday's meeting, in addition to Williamstown officials, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission members and area residents.
Lanesborough residents and officials in attendance argued the town "subsidizes" the others, who don't share in capital expenses. Additionally, they said, the state pays schools less in per-pupil costs for non-district students and more students necessitate the hiring of more teachers.
"Anybody who wants to send their kids to Mount Greylock Regional High School, which Lanesborough and Williamstown own, should pay a minimum of what we pay," said Lanesborough resident Ray Jones. "Don't ask me to subsidize somebody else, because nobody's subsidizing me."
Paul Harsch, real estate agent and owner of Harsch Associates in Williamstown, took a different tack to make the same argument. He said everyone's property values depend on a quality educational infrastructure, and towns who aren't paying into the district need to start thinking about it as in their "self-interest."
"If we just look at this from an immediate point of view -- ‘I can't afford any more taxes' -- we are losing the real big picture," Harsch said.
Lanesborough Selectman Robert Ericson suggested students from non-district towns who attend Mount Greylock cost Williamstown and Lanesborough more than $1 million, but his figures were heavily disputed by many in the audience, including school officials.
Sieloff appealed to representatives of the towns at Thursday's meeting to add a ballot question onto their respective annual town meeting agendas, asking voters whether they'd support joining the district.
The tax rate in Lanesborough, a town of 2,990 residents, bests that of many larger Berkshire County towns at $18.52 per thousand dollars of valuation -- as compared to $8.20, $10.29 and $2.84 in New Ashford, Richmond and Hancock, respectively.
Such realities earlier caused Lanesborough school committee officials to weigh pulling out of Mount Greylock Regional School District, an item still under consideration. The thought was Lanesborough cannot add to residents' tax burdens a sizable, multiyear loan needed to pay its share of a Mount Greylock project, which Sieloff estimated at $9 million in the town's 10-year capital improvement plane.
District officials continue to advocate for a feasibility study that would assess a variety of potential Mount Greylock renovation or rebuild projects. Uneducated estimates of the price range of these run between $36 million and $70 million -- around 80 percent of which would be reimbursed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
Sieloff said another reason to shoot for the lower end of the spectrum is voters might reject a project deemed too costly. In November, Berkshire Hills School District voters shot down a proposed Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation.
"It would be a shame to have all this work go into [planning the project] and then not be able to convince people in the two towns to vote to fund the school," he said.
On Thursday, focus remained on how to enlarge the district and no mention was made of Lanesborough potentially withdrawing.
In the background of these discussions were stark figures of projected decline in the county's population, earlier presented by BRPC.
Berkshire County public school enrollment declined 17 percent between 2003 and 2014, and BRPC expects a drop the county's school age population in 2030 to be 13,977 -- 28 percent below the 2010 figure of 19,504.
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