Merger with Vt. school hinges on upgrade to Clarksburg School

A proposed merger of elementary schools in Clarksburg, above, and Stamford, Vt., has been put off until Clarksburg can come up with a plan and financing to renovate and upgrade its school building.

CLARKSBURG — The merger of two elementary schools in two different states has been postponed indefinitely.

After examining a report from the Public Consulting Group, officials in Stamford, Vt., are putting the brakes on a merger plan between Stamford and Clarksburg elementary schools until Clarksburg can come up with a plan and financing to renovate and upgrade its school building.

"If they vote to renovate and upgrade that building, we can push forward," said Barbara Malinowski, a member of the Stamford School Committee and of the Interstate Merger Committee, referring to Clarksburg residents. "But if not, we'll have to be in a hold position for right now."

In September 2017, Clarksburg was one vote short of the necessary two-thirds majority to approve a $19 million school renovation project during a special town meeting. Discussions about renovating the aging school building began more than a decade ago. Voters cast 144 no votes and 287 yes votes. To reach two-thirds approval, the project required 288 yes votes.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority agreed to fund the majority of the project at $11.36 million, leaving the town to borrow the remaining $7.7 million.

Two months later, voters shot down the same proposal by a vote of 292 to 263..

Since then, Clarksburg voters approved a $500,000 debt exclusion to pay for some improvements, but there are many needs in the 1950s building that are far more expensive.

To replace the roof alone would cost about $600,000, according to John Franzoni, superintendent of the Northern Berkshire School Union. And there are many other needs, such as asbestos abatement and structural changes to come into compliance with federal handicapped accessibility standards.

The report issued by Public Consulting Group, which has been analyzing the feasibility of merging the two schools, noted that the Clarksburg school building is an obstacle to a successful merger and needs to be addressed.

"At the very core of this interstate merger is the need to renovate and make mandatory repairs to the Clarksburg School building and ensure the Stamford School building continues to be maintained, while students have safe access to all areas of the facility," PCG reported. "Not only are there major physical challenges in Clarksburg, but there are fundamental compliance issues which must be addressed if the building is to remain open."

The building is out of compliance with respect to the Americans with Disabilities Act, so any plan must include an elevator or lift, the report noted. It also cited the aging roof, asbestos removal, student bathroom renovations, and many other necessary repairs due to a "lack of proper maintenance over the years."

While the town is using the $500,000 to address some asbestos removal, safety issues at the front entrance and long-needed work on the student bathrooms, "such a piecemeal approach will not bring the building anywhere near up to code and closure in the very near future is becoming a more immediate reality without a major appropriation from the town," the report said.

The current work is going well, according to Malinowski, who is employed at Clarksburg School as a teacher aide, "but there's still a lot of work to do. So if there is no renovation, there is no merger."

The PCG report, a follow-up to a more preliminary report, listed a number of advantages to merging the two schools. Among other things, it would allow the two towns to split the grades between the two schools, allowing greater flexibility and more classroom space for other offerings, such as preschool education and more enrichment offerings.

"PCG believes the proposed merger model is both educationally and fiscally sound," the report notes. "Done thoughtfully, both towns can benefit."

Those benefits include a single central administration with potentially enhanced efficiency of operations, coordinated curriculum from kindergarten through Grade 12, expanded curricular offerings to serve an increased number of students, the opportunity to expand athletics and extracurricular activities, and a single budget to take advantage of centralized purchasing techniques and coordinated transportation.

Franzoni said there are a number of exciting possibilities, but there are also many challenges.

"There's still a lot more to look at with the merger," he said. "But the challenge is that the towns are in no financial position, especially with the pandemic, to be strong enough to move on this."

He said the work on the building has already replaced the two furnaces and secured the entrance, and the improvements are a step forward, but it's clearly not enough.

The town has engaged an architect to come up with some preliminary plans — expected in June — for a renovation project, but until that's done the estimated cost of such an endeavor is unknown. But given the previous estimates, Franzoni said the town wouldn't be able to pay the full cost without the help of the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Then there are the legalities involved with negotiating contracts, unifying the workers unions, determining the funding formula by engaging bureaucracies in two different states, handling the retirement funds for employees, and a mountain of other legal technicalities.

Franzoni said the PCG report offered some intriguing alternatives to the merger plan — in the case that the Clarksburg School renovation project is again turned down by the voters — including a possible regionalization with North Adams Public Schools.

The pandemic and the economy have also slowed down the process.

"We'll probably have to take another look at this in the spring," Franzoni said.

"I think if Clarksburg votes [a renovation project] down, then we're done," Malinowski said. "But regionalization is not a bad idea — it's four miles down the road."

Scott Stafford can be reached at or 413-629-4517.