South Egremont School to reopen next year
Some education officials wary about cost, enrollment
SHEFFIELD — After a yearlong hiatus, South Egremont School will be open next year, though some members of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee question the wisdom of operating a small school when the district is strapped for cash.
To save money for the five-town district last year, South Egremont School was put on hiatus, meaning no school program was operated there, but the school never formally closed.
The Southern Berkshire Regional School District School Committee has budgeted about $175,000 for the school's operation in 2018-19. The last time the school was open, 2016, 13 students attended kindergarten and first grade at an operational cost of about $100,000. It's not clear what enrollment will look like next year.
Egremont Select Board Vice Chairman George McGurn said if the school offers grade levels beyond K-1, more funding could be necessary.
"There will be an educational program in the school," McGurn said. "I would assume if there's a different type of educational program in that school that could very well need a lot more than $175,000. We'd look at our options to leverage the $175,000 — it could be leveraged to the benefit of the whole region."
The reopening of South Egremont School came as part of a larger discussion about the value of Southern Berkshire Regional School District's outlying schools — South Egremont, Monterey and New Marlborough — at the first roundtable meeting to brainstorm ways for the district to deal with declining student enrollment and funds.
From 2012 to 2016, district enrollment declined by 44 students, from 769 in 2012 to 725. Over that same time period, the per-pupil cost to educate a student in-district rose 23 percent from $17,640 in 2012 to $21,628, according to data provided by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Meanwhile, statewide spending on public schools has risen by no more than 3.6 percent annually.
Participants in the inaugural roundtable meeting included Superintendent Beth Regulbuto, the School Committee and representatives from district member towns Monterey, Alford, Egremont and New Marlborough select boards. A Sheffield selectman was unable to attend but sent written comments.
Some community leaders did not appear to be sold on the necessity of operating South Egremont School.
"As a School Committee member and a taxpayer, I don't want to necessarily support a school that takes $175,000 out of the budget for only one kid," said School Committee member H. Dennis Sears, of Sheffield.
Among the questions posed Thursday night: Are the small elementary schools a magnet that attracts outside families to the district? Do enough students attend the individual schools to make them worth funding? Is the quality of education at a small school better than what could be had at a larger institution?
McGurn said the town is committed to supporting the schoolhouse regardless of first-year enrollment figures.
"If we only had two (students enroll) then we'd have to do a heck of a better job next year marketing," he said.
Small school value has been a heated topic of debate on the regional School Committee for the past few years. During that time, and due to budget shortfalls, the School Committee put two small elementary schools on hiatus: Monterey in 2015 and Egremont the following year.
Egremont sued the School Committee in April to get them to fund the school. Over the summer, the town and the school district settled the suit and the two-room South Egremont School will open for the 2018-19 school year.
But many questions persist about this school — and how much the five member towns of the district are willing to pay for it. It's not clear how many students might enroll or what grade levels will be served. The town is also planning a $250,000 renovation to the school — what if it isn't ready for the start of the academic year in the fall?
"Could you put forth a special town meeting and let the voters vote whether they'd like the school open or closed?" Sears asked McGurn.
"If you want a resounding vote you can get it to keep that school going," McGurn said.
Kristin Palpini can be contacted at email@example.com and @kristinpalpini on Twitter.
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