Williamstown school officials and the superintendent of School Union 71 say they were surprised at discussion in Lanesborough about dissolving the union.
Update at 12:22 a.m., Jan. 15, with comments from Lanesborough School Committee member and School Union Chairwoman Regina Dilego.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A proposal by the Lanesborough School Committee chairman to look at breaking up School Union 71 has caught Williamstown and school officials in his own town off-guard.
At Monday's Lanesborough Selectmen's
meeting, Robert Barton asked for and received $1,000 to survey town residents about whether they wanted to continue in the union along with Williamstown.
Lanesborough School Committee member Regina Dilego, currently chairman of the union committee, said Barton is acting on his own.
"I am very alarmed that our chair has used his position to create the false impression that the Lanesborough School Committee is planning action which it has never discussed," she wrote in an email late Tuesday night. The school union, she said, "has been a positive and co-operative experience."
Dilego said she wanted it to be clear that Barton was acting on his own.
The elementary schools in the two towns share the cost of administrative services through the superintendency union.
Barton, who plans the survey to look into whether the town wants to continue the arrangement, serves on the School Union 71 Committee along with Dilego and one other Lanesborough committee member and three members of the Williamstown School Committee.
On Tuesday, the chairman of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee explained that either town could, in theory, dissolve the union, but that decision would not change the regional agreement that unites the two towns for the education of students in Grades 7-12.
"Lanesborough could pull out of Union 71 and stay in the Mount Greylock Regional School District," Carolyn Greene said. "The union vote is done at the School Committee level. Union 71 has its next meeting on Feb. 16. They just need a majority vote of the membership to dissolve the union.
"Withdrawal from the region is a much bigger deal. It requires town meeting votes in both towns and approval from [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education]. Mr. Barton is certainly interested in exploring withdrawal of Lanesborough from the Mount Greylock Regional School District and has stated such in an email to me."
Greene agreed that breaking up Union 71 could be a first step in that process.
"Dissolving the union could be a step toward withdrawing from the region or it could be a stand-alone move," she said. "DESE often refuses to let towns recede from existing regions, so breaking the region will not be an easy thing to do.
"In like manner, when Mount Greylock joined with Union 71 to form the tri-district administration several years ago, that could have been a step toward expanding the region (to a prek-12), or it could remain a stand-alone move. Should we need to dissolve the agreement between Union 71 and Mount Greylock (if Union 71 dissolves, for instance), Mount Greylock and WES would have the option of continuing to share a central administration."
The head of that central administration said Tuesday she was blindsided by Monday's vote.
I was shocked ... I had not heard anything about that from them.
— Valerie Hall, WES chairman
"It came as a complete surprise to me, and it probably came as a complete surprise to the members of the SU 71 Committee from Williamstown," Tri-District Superintendent Rose Ellis said.
Ellis said Barton had not raised the idea of a survey of Lanesborough residents at any SU 71 Committee meetings. The committee, which meets three times a year, last convened in October.
"I was shocked," said WES Committee Chairwoman Valerie Hall, who also serves on the SU 71 Committee. "I had not heard anything about that from them."
Dilego, in an email that she also sent to Barton, said Barton had wanted to discuss the matter at next week's meeting.
"The only way that you could present this as the stance of the Committee is if we had discussed this and made a decision to explore this — and we have not. You are using the mantle of 'Chair' to attempt to push forward your own agenda," an unhappy Dilego wrote him.
On Monday, Barton told the Lanesborough Selectmen the town could save between $40,000 and $60,000 by leaving School Union 71. Hall said she did not know how he arrived at those figures.
"I think they spent a total of $100,000 on all the shared services," she said. "Where he's thinking he could get those same services and save $40,000 to $60,000, I can't imagine."
SU 71 staff includes Ellis, a business manager, a director of pupil services and an assistant to the superintendent.
"The fact that they're a small district would impact their costs," Ellis said of the prospect of Lanesborough breaking off on its own. "There are fixed costs you have to have."
And there are benefits to pooling resources at the superintendency level. In recent years, both elementary schools have shared staff and offered joint professional development opportunities.
"We're moving into our sixth year with positive outcomes," Ellis said. "I believe it benefits both districts."
In fact, elected school officials in both towns have been looking at expanding the Mount Greylock Regional School District into a full, K-12 district. That process was put on the back burner last fall when the junior-senior high school received an invitation to enter the Massachusetts School Building Authority's program.
But expanding the regional agreement likely will be discussed in the near future, after town meeting in each town decides whether to fund a feasibility study to help decide whether to renovate or rebuild at Mount Greylock.
Part of Mount Greylock's application process with MSBA is a study of enrollment trends, and the district is in the process of hiring the New England School Development Council to conduct a study, Ellis said.
That had Ellis and Greene scratching their heads at Barton's other request to the Lanesborough Selectmen on Monday: for $4,000 to do an enrollment study.
"For [someone] to do an alternate study at this point is not helpful," Greene said. "To do a competing study — my concern is it will be apples and oranges and people won't know what to think about it. Hopefully, that won't be the case. I'd like people to be clear on what they're voting on come May and June and not be confused."
The Mount Greylock School Building Committee is working to bring warrant articles to each town's spring town meeting to approve funding for the feasibility study for MSBA. Greene said the study has an $850,000 price tag at this time, which would be split between the two towns on a per-capita basis; 55 percent of the feasibility study is reimbursable through the MSBA program.