Parents push for keeping Southern Berkshire schools

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MONTEREY -- Parents and concerned citizens on Monday night implored representatives from the Southern Berkshire Regional School District to find ways to retain the three outlying schools, which are currently targeted for closure.

The School Committee held the first of four public hearings on the portion of the 2013 draft budget that calls for the closure of the Monterey, New Malborough Central and South Egremont elementary schools on July 1.

Roughly 75 people attended the meeting, which had to be moved from Town Hall to accommodate the crowd.

For more than two hours, Superintendent Michael Singleton was peppered with questions about the proposal, which was drafted by the administration as a means to meet the request of the member towns and the School Committee for a level-funded budget.

Singleton said there are questions about with the safety, educational opportunities and economy of keeping the schools open, as well as rising energy prices and pending negotiations with the district's unions and bus companies to factor in.

The issue of closing the schools has been discussed for years, Singleton said, so this will provide voters with the opportunity to weigh in definitively on the future of the district.

"Let's put the issue forward and figure out once and for all, are we going to continue to support the three outlying schools or not?" said Singleton.

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Many in attendance asked for more detailed documentation to explain how the administration came to its conclusions. They also asked if it would be better to take more time to look into the issue before sending it to voters.

"It seems to me you're rushing the issue," said Susan Smith, a New Marlborough resident and parent of two students.

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Administrators believe they can save $330,000 in closing the schools through reduced energy costs and a reduction of five full- and part-time staff positions. It's believed the three schools also need more than $1.4 million in repairs to deal with years of neglect.

A $3 million bond proposal, which would have split funding between the main campus in Sheffield and the three outlying schools, was rejected by voters in New Marlborough and Sheffield last May. The bond would have required support from all five towns.

Alford is the fifth member of the district.

Vito Valentini, a School Committee member, said the issue is not the quality of education at these schools, but the underlying costs to keep them operational going forward.

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Speakers also questioned the impact on class size -- though Singleton said that shouldn't be an issue -- and the effects of hour-long bus rides on young children.

Many in attendance questioned the long-term impacts on the towns, saying people will stop moving to the area if there isn't a school there.

"These aren't just line items on a budget," said one attendee. "These are actually really important elements in our community."

The next meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the North Egremont Firehouse.

Once the hearings are complete, the School Committee will decide in February whether to send the proposal to the towns for their annual town meetings. The proposal would need support from four of five towns.

School Committee members said they also will look at the outline of an alternative budget that would keep the schools open as means to better understand the financial impact of the proposal.


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