In Sen. Hinds forum, Cheshire poses tough questions, with few bright answers

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Editor's note: This article was updated on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, to reflect that Edmund St. John IV is a candidate for the Cheshire Select Board.

CHESHIRE — Less than four months into his first term as a State Senator, Adam Hinds faced a small room of Cheshire residents dismayed with the impending closure of the town's elementary school.

He had no easy answers.

Hinds, D-Pittsfield, did not sugarcoat his response when asked about the possibility of a state bailout of the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District, which voted to close Cheshire Elementary School next year to avoid further cuts.

"I wouldn't hold your breath," Hinds said. "This is a local decision...we're not trying to second-guess what the school committee has been doing. They've had a really challenging set of circumstances."

The senator fielded questions from constituents in an informal public forum at the Cheshire Community Center on Monday as part of his "Speak Up Western Mass" tour. He's previously held events in Lanesborough, Huntington, and Williamsburg.

Though Monday's discussion mostly centered on the impending school closure — and ways to possibly avoid it — residents also asked about the long-term future of the community and how the state is working to stave off decline.

Hinds said that state leaders had looked into, if asked by the school committee and towns, what pots of money would be available to assist the district.

"The budget cycle and the budget problems that the state is in means it's even harder now for us to go there," Hinds said. "The bottom line is this crisis is underscoring the need to problem solve as a community."

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Hinds said one of his priorities is the funding of Chapter 70 school aid, which Gov. Charlie Baker set at $20 per student in his proposal but the House of Representatives has increased to $30.

Ed St. John IV, an outgoing school committee member and Select Board candidate, said at first he asked why the state couldn't chip in more Chapter 70 funding. Then, he learned that "we're one of the communities that receive the highest percentage of their budget from Chapter 70 monies."

"It falls on local communities to pick up the difference," St. John said.

The senator also acknowledged that the state has failed to live up to its promise to fully reimburse regional school districts on education costs, a consistent gripe of the Adams-Cheshire School Committee as they face annual budget constraints.

"That has an implication in some districts of a few hundred thousand dollars," Hinds said.

But fixing these issues won't be simple; as the budget is taken up at the state level, it "doesn't look good."

"The decision by the school committee to close Cheshire is literally just the latest in a line that is unfortunately growing," Hinds said, noting other schools in his district that have closed or could close imminently.

Multiple residents wondered what closing the town's school means for its long-term outlook and ability to attract new residents.

"What they're saying is, `We're going to consolidate because the economy's not going to change," said Misty Sarkis. "So we're giving up."

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks


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