Wahconah sophomore has own take on Central Berkshire school budget


DALTON >> Jonathan Dos Santos has spent dozens of hours researching Central Berkshire Regional School District finances and operations.

A Wahconah Regional High School sophomore, Dos Santos interviewed "just about every teacher in the building." He pored over district budgets and the policy manual, and studied a New England School Development Council report released last year in anticipation of the upcoming fiscal 2017 budget process.

The goal, Dos Santos said, was to "raise education and the school experience to the highest possible standard throughout the district, in the most cost efficient manner."

The result was a document he called the "CBRSD Improvement Plan and Budget, Sport and Education Paradigm Shift."

And while School Committee members applauded the Becket teen's initiative, they rescinded an invitation to let him present the document during a recent budget meeting.

Ranking members said they disagreed with the report's findings and recommendations.

"I was impressed by the work, I was impressed by the vocabulary," said Richard Wagner, a School Committee representative from Windsor. "Touché. It speaks well of our ability to educate. But, the actual content, I questioned."

Of particular concern was a recommendation that the district should close Becket-Washington Elementary School in Becket and re-house its 108 students at Kittredge Elementary School in Hinsdale.

The district closed Cummington's Berkshire Trail after the 2014-15 school year, and faced staunch opposition by some members of the public and School Committee, which ultimately voted narrowly to make the move. Now Cummington is pursuing eventual withdrawal from the district.

"Some of the issues I touched on were hard issues, and it did poke at some points that were sensitive to people," Dos Santos said. "Some didn't like it."

He added, "Basically, it was shunned."

Using figures from the NESDEC report, Dos Santos concluded that the district could save as much as $540,000 by consolidating Becket-Washington into Kittredge, whose student population stands at 115 when the building is equipped to hold 240 students plus 60 pre-kindergarteners.

These funds, he argued, could go toward eliminating student dues and sports fees at Wahconah, and fund upgrades to district libraries, music, arts and sports programs and more.

But members balked at the suggestion.

"Take a hard look at what closing a school entails," said Peter Gazillo, a School Committee representative from Dalton. "We're still going through [the effects of closing Berkshire Trail]. We'd love to have money to put toward everything to make it better. But it's not that easy."

Other recommendations included eliminating long-term, flat-rate bus contracts and eliminating laborious attendance and sign-in sheets in favor of a card-swipe system as a way of promoting "bell-to-bell" learning, a district goal.

Several school committee members known as budget hawks vowed to not let Dos Santos' report "die," said the youth, who also claimed to have the backing of many teachers and students. But a majority of school committee members in the end deemed the report unfit for public presentation.

Nonetheless, the school committee members who spoke on the matter all praised Dos Santos' work ethic and encouraged he and his peers to keep asking questions and digging for answers.

"I think curiosity is great," Gazillo said. "I would never want to stymie anybody's curiosity."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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