New Marlborough may push for closure of outlying elementary schools


NEW MARLBOROUGH -- Selectmen in New Marlborough are expected to vote Monday on a recommendation to seek the closure of two of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District's three outlying elementary school programs.

The motion, which calls for the closure of the Monterey and Egremont schools, likely would include a request for other district towns to follow their lead, New Marlborough Selectman Nathaniel Yohalem said.

"We haven't framed the wording yet, but we will be asking the School Committee to be putting it on the agenda," he said. "They should begin a discussion on whether or not to recommend the closing of one or both of the schools."

Sheffield officials on Monday voted to support a similar recommendation to close just the Monterey program. That measure was sent to the School Committee.

The district serves students in Alford, Egremont, New Marlborough, Monterey and Sheffield. The outlying elementary school programs are in Monterey, Egremont and New Marlborough. A school closure would require a supermajority of the School Committee's support and approval from four of the five towns.

The School Committee has embraced a recommendation from the district's Early Childhood Task Force to support the three programs -- as long as the towns cover the infrastructure costs. The committee on Tuesday postponed a vote until next week on the budget, which carries a 1.6 percent spending increase, although some towns are rallying to find some extra savings.

The two schools have become targets for savings because of the low attendance and infrastructure repair needs that other towns don't want to bankroll. Monterey School, which is a pre-kindergarten program, has seven students; the South Egremont School has 10 students in kindergarten and first grade, according to school officials.

Both schools need repairs, but Monterey's school is in particular poor condition, failing to offer 21st century learning amenities and not meeting federal and state building code -- although its been passed for use by a building inspector.

These students could be relocated to Undermountain Elementary School or New Marlborough School, which serves students up to fourth grade, and has 83 students.

Yohalem said the cost of teaching each student is $25,000 -- or $10,000 more than for other students in the district.

The School Committee at Tuesday's meeting addressed Sheffield's request to close Monterey as a means to save the district $125,000.

Vito Valentini, chairman of the district's finance subcommittee, said he called Select Board Chairwoman Julie Hannum to object to the letter.

"I felt the letter was out of order and I stated so," Valentini said. "I also felt that each town has a right to be able to determine their future with respect to how it integrates in the district."

In Monterey, the town has had ongoing discussions about the repairing the school, which could cost $500,000.

Monterey Select Board Chairwoman Muriel Lazzarini said she didn't believe the town would endorse the recommendation.

"I think the town still supports a program in Monterey," she said.

Lazzarini pointed out Monterey's steadfast support of the district, noting the town paid an 11.6 percent assessment increase last year. Despite a recent survey that 70 percent of 132 respondents saying they wouldn't support the construction cost, Lazzarini said the discussion about the building's fate is in the early phases and the survey shouldn't be over-interpreted.

"We're supposed to be behaving [in the spirit of cooperation] and it hasn't happened many years," Lazzarini said. "Monterey has always been supportive of the district."

In 2012, former district Superintendent Michael Singleton proposed closing all three schools, prompting a backlash from the communities and school committee members to reject his proposed budget -- and the School Committee has since spoken in support of retaining these schools.

Despite heated debates in the past, Yohalem said this was essential to address because the schools don't have large classes to support ample socializing and its a poor use of district funds.

"It's the right thing to do to address the issue," Yohalem said. "I don't' think the politics matter. What is relevant is the education of these students."

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