Clarksburg OKs study into possible elementary school merger with Stamford, Vt.

Residents on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to approve a feasibiilty study into the possibility of merging Clarksburg Elementary School with neighboring Stamford Elementary School just across the Vermont border

By Adam Shanks

The Berkshire Eagle

CLARKSBURG — Voters here unanimously greenlighted a study to look at uniting two schools on either side of the Massachusetts and Vermont border.

Thursday night's special town meeting vote was the first step toward what could result in an unusual cross-state merger between the schools in Clarksburg and Stamford, Vt., into a prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade district. Clarksburg Elementary School is part of the North Berkshire School Union, which also includes schools in Rowe, Florida and Savoy.

The schools in Clarksburg and Stamford are less than 4 miles apart. A merger would bridge two communities that share similar demographics and cultural connections.

But because a state border separates them, a unification agreement would be unprecedented.

"We have a lot of the same questions that you probably have so we need this feasibility study to really be able to come back to you and say, 'These are the scenarios,'" Jonathan Lev, the superintendent of North Berkshire School Union, told voters at a recent informational session. 

Thursday's vote, which involved little discussion, does not authorize the districts to merge. But it was the first in what would be a long line of approvals that the districts would need to make ahead of a merger. 

Next, Stamford, where voters already have approved the study, will wait on the Vermont Legislature to fund its half of the study. Vermont's House of Representatives approved the funding, and the Senate is expected to take it up in May. 

Clarksburg's half of the funding for the study was requested by state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi before her death in 2017 and later approved by the Legislature. 

Once completed, any proposed agreement between the towns would require approval from voters in Clarksburg and Stamford, the Vermont and Massachusetts legislatures and Congress. 

The study comes as Stamford faces pressure from Vermont to consolidate and Clarksburg officials see a declining population in Berkshire County, and continued efforts to share services between towns. Officials in both towns believe that the earliest they could merge would be fall 2019. 

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Stamford began looking south after its effort to merge with Readsboro and Halifax last year — prompted by Vermont's Act 46 — was rejected by town voters.

But Stamford voters approved the feasibility study by a vote of 173 to 6. 

Although Vermont has examples of districts that share services with schools in neighboring states, the type of agreement that will be studied in Clarksburg and Stamford would be unprecedented in Massachusetts. 

The request failed at a special town meeting — one that was focused primarily on marijuana zoning ordinances — last November, amid questions from School Committee members about what the proposal entailed. 

Leading up to Thursday's vote, town and school officials from Clarksburg and Stamford offered more insight into their plans, including during an informational session held at the school last week. 

Clarksburg voters tabled a resident's motion to require the town to mail any proposed district agreement to every resident at least 30 days before it's voted on. 

Town Administrator Carl McKinney balked at the notion of mailing a lengthy agreement. 

"It's going to cost a fortune," he said. "Where is that money going to come from?"

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.