New Marlborough joins Sheffield in urging possible closure of outlying schools


NEW MARLBOROUGH -- A second member town of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District is urging the School Committee to explore closing at least one of the district’s three outlying elementary school programs.

The three-member New Marlborough Board of Selectmen unanimously agreed on Tuesday to send a letter urging the committee discuss the closures at a future meeting. The letter suggests students at the Monterey School and South Egremont School should be relocated to New Marlborough Central and Undermountain Elementary School, respectively.

The letter identifies a potential annual savings of $225,000 by relocating nine in-district students at the two schools. Additional savings would be gained in not needing to repair or replace the aging schoolhouses, which need building repairs and lack 21st century learning amenities.

"We recognize that transferring either or both of the educational programs can be an emotional issue for residents of the two affected towns," the letter states. "It is, however, an issue that should be addressed."

New Marlborough is urging the district’s four other member towns -- Alford, Egremont, Monterey and Sheffield -- to follow its lead. A school closure would require a supermajority of the School Committee’s support and approval from four of the five towns. Outlying elementary programs are in Monterey, Egremont and New Marlborough.

The Sheffield Board of Selectmen already has sent a letter to the School Committee requesting the closure of only the Monterey School. The other town Select Boards are also discussing the matter.

Former district Superintendent Michael Singleton recommended in 2012 the closure of all three outlying elementary school programs, which led to an angry backlash from district towns and failed to receive the support of the School Committee.

Despite the past resistance, New Marlborough Selectman Nathaniel Yohalem identified multiple reasons why the prospects for a school closure is more likely to pass than in years’ past.

The in-district enrollment has declined in the Egremont and Monterey programs, New Marlborough Central won’t be considered for closure (the program serves a total of 83 students through fourth grade), and a recent Monterey survey showed 70 percent of 132-respondents would not support spending up to $500,000 on a new schoolhouse.

Monterey Select Board members in recent months have said there remains support for a program in the town, and the discussion is ongoing.

Following the meeting, Yohalem said if the School Committee rejects the request he would "want to hear their reason and then it would be evaluated at the time."

"The School Committee should take the lead about what should be done in the three towns," Yohalem said.

The recommendation comes at a time when the district is examining the elimination of nine staffing positions in their fiscal 2015 budget -- more than half of whom are employed in part-time or full-time roles and have no intention of retiring.

Superintendent David Hastings, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said he couldn’t envision himself recommending closing the schools. He said he would follow the lead of the School Committee, and he also highlighted a string of recent valedictorians that have come from these small schools.

"I recognize financially they are hard to justify because of the number of kids," Hastings said. "I believe the towns as a member of the district feel they have a right to have a school in their town."

Questioned about the class sizes, Hastings said, "At what point does it cease to be a school? I don’t have an answer to that question."

School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

To reach John Sakata:

or (413) 496-6240.

On Twitter: @jsakata


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