Lanesborough, Williamstown voters to decide on one school district Tuesday

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LANESBOROUGH — For nearly a decade, Lanesborough and Williamstown elementary schools and Mount Greylock Regional High School have laid the foundation to create a single school system.

On Tuesday night, both towns will vote on whether to seal the deal.

In 2008, the towns' grade schools merged, administratively, under Union 71 to have one superintendent. Two years later, the Mount Greylock school district superintendent would also hold the Union 71 position. In the 2010-11 academic year, the three schools started collaborating on educational programs so sixth-graders from both towns were on the same level entering the Grade 7-12 Mount Greylock campus.

"For example, we began aligning the math curriculum ... that happened because all three [school] principals cooperated," said Kimberley Grady, interim superintendent for all three schools.

Unifying Lanesborough and Williamstown on the grade-school level apparently has been a success, according to Lanesborough Select Board Chairman John Goerlach.

"The kids seem to do better when they get together at [Mount Greylock]," he said.

Goerlach noted that his three-person board didn't issue a formal recommendation on regionalization so as not to influence voters.

Lanesborough and Willamstown will hold separate special town meetings Tuesday on whether to finalize a formal pre-K through 12 regional entity. Lanesborough voters will gather at 6 p.m., and Williamstown, at 7 p.m., both at their respective elementary schools.

"It's almost a no-brainer, the next logical step," said Jen DeChaine, mother of a Mount Greylock eighth-grader and two students at Lanesborough Elementary.

The Lanesborough Elementary PTO president's enthusiastic support for regionalization is getting mixed reviews among some town officials, who say they are also hearing the pros and cons of the merger from among residents.

Proponents of rolling the two town schools into the Mount Greylock district cite as advantages to unification a more streamlined school system overseen by a single school committee, a more efficient central administration and additional savings for taxpayers.

Opponents fear loss of local control of their elementary schools and the possibility one might close if enrollment declines.

Under the expansion plan, a single superintendent position would cover all three schools. The existing seven-member Mount Greylock School Committee would be the sole elected governing body for the new district. The individual elementary school district committees would disband after June 30.

Central administration reporting to one school board would greatly reduce the number of meetings for administrators.

"You can't expect eight people to answer to three school committees and other boards — that's just not sustainable," Finance Committee member Ron Tinkham told The Eagle.

"We're talking about a total of 15 people to fill the committees, and in this day and age, it's tough to find volunteers," Grady noted.

The existing committee makeup would remain: four members from Williamstown and three from Lanesborough. Voters in both municipalities would elect all seven to staggered four-year terms. The first election is set for Nov. 2018. In the interim, a transitional regional school board would consist of two Williamstown and Lanesborough representatives from the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee, two from the Williamstown School Committee and one from the Lanesborough School Committee.

Losing the municipal school committee doesn't sit well with Lanesborough Finance Committee Chairman Ray Jones.

"Is anyone concerned about the autonomy? Is anybody concerned about giving up a little bit of power, the voting, the individual rights we have as a town?" Jonse said at a recent finance meeting. The five member panel voted 3-2 in support of regionalization.

School officials have emphasized that each annual town meeting will vote on budgets for their respective elementary schools. The existing school councils, an advisory panel of parents, students, teachers and community members, will have more input on spending, school policy and operation of their school.

"We have to talk up the power of the school council; that's where our voices will be heard the loudest," said Finance Committee member Jodi-Lee Szczepaniak-Locke.

The future of Lanesborough Elementary has also been a concern of many voters, according to Selectman Robert Ericson.

"Losing local control is the big hue and cry," he said "At some point in time we might have to close an elementary school due to declining enrollment. People are afraid a local school will disappear."

The proposed pre-K through-12 district document requires both towns' approval to close a school — an unlikely scenario according to supporters.

"I don't believe Williamstown and Lanesborough will combine the schools; there's too much of a distance (17 miles) between the two," Tinkham noted.

Tuesday's vote comes on the heels of the recent closing of Cheshire Elementary School in the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District, and DeChaine fears there is an underlying current of opposition to a single school district.

School officials continue to fend off potential negativity with the facts about the proposed agreement.

"People aren't asking questions, but we keep putting information out there," said Lanesborough School Committee Chairwoman Regina DiLego.

"We've been building a layer of trust, and the proof that we can cooperate is critical for voters to know," she said.

Making the switch to a single district has some cost savings to taxpayers. The new district would continue to save about $400,000 annually, as it has the past decade under a streamlined administration for all three schools. Additional net savings of $121,000 are likely with a potential boost in state transportation of $191,000, based on fiscal 2018 calculations, minus the one-time, $70,000 compensation when merging teacher and the other union contracts from all three schools.The taxpayers would maintain ownership of their respective elementary schools, with each town responsible for capital debt attached to their respective school, according to the proposal.

All three schools' principals would remain, but the individual school budgets would be combined into a single spending plan. Each spring, the towns would vote on an operating budget assessment toward funding their respective elementary schools and paying their share of the Mount Greylock operating expenses for each fiscal year starting July 1.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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