Chairman Robert Barton says the time is now to start looking at other districts because the other districts are looking to expand.
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — School Committee Chairman Robert Barton is calling for a vote on whether the town intends to stay with Superintendency Union 71.
Barton says he wants the School Committee to state its intentions to leave at the end of Superintendent Rose Ellis' contract in June 2015.
With a vote to leave the district, Barton said the two towns could still hammer out a new agreement to keep the union intact or reach a deal with another school district.
The urgency for a vote, Barton said, is to prevent Lanesborough from being locked into new contracts for any employees during that period. Ellis' contract is the longest one currently in place while multiyear extensions are expected to be voted on in the coming months.
"In order for Lanesborough to be on its toes going forward and able to look at alternatives, it seems to me that we would not want to get into contracts going past June 2015 unless we are comfortable for the long term," Barton said at a committee meeting Friday afternoon. "In these unions, if the union agrees to a contract that might run three years and a year into, one of the partners decides to leave, that leaving party is still responsible for the rest of the contracts."
However, School Committee member Regina DiLego expressed concern with his tactics, saying it would have been more collegial to express that to the union. Additionally, she said by stating this intention, there is no guarantee that Williamstown would want to renegotiate the union and that since the town will sooner or later be voting to regionalize the entire district, a vote to leave could be voided.
"There is no real plan," she said of the intent to leave, because there are no other studies or discussion about where the town would go.
Barton said this tactic is the best way to avoid locking into contracts because Lanesborough could be outnumbered on the union board. Last June, Lanesborough opposed extending one contract, and representatives voiced their concern but the ultimate vote was made when Lanesborough was underrepresented, he said.
Each town has three members on the superintendency committee.
"The concern that I have about that is that if Lanesborough doesn't have all three members there and voting together, the likelihood is that the decision will be made by the Williamstown members," Barton said, meaning the next extension could be approved without Lanesborough's input forcing them to pay out the entire length of it. "It is a quick turnaround but the gun was, I felt, put to our head. The vote to extend a contract is before our next meetings."
DiLego dismissed Barton's concern saying, "I have not found Williamstown people difficult to work with. We had a difference in opinion last year but I haven't found them difficult to work with."
Many former and current school officials attended the meeting to express concern over the proposal to withdraw from the superintendency union.
Barton, who opposed the creation of the union years ago, says the committee would have time to look elsewhere — and should because of cost, input and timing.
As for moving forward, he said other superintendents had asked during his inquiries if Lanesborough was interested in joining a larger district.
Barton has already gotten a jump start on what he sees as a long, in-depth look at administration with a $1,000 grant from the town to survey residents on their opinions of the union. He also received another $4,000 to perform an enrollment study.
Joining or creating a larger district would lower the administrative costs, he said.
He presented cost comparisons that show Lanesborough is paying a lot per pupil in administrative costs compared to other towns, said it doesn't get fair input on contracts and that other districts are currently looking at expanding.
"We have a relatively expensive cost of superintendency for Lanesborough," Barton said.
Lanesborough Elementary pays $809 per child in administrative cost, Barton said. He compared it to Pittsfield at $381, Central Berkshire Regional at $452, Clarksburg at $562, the entire tri-district (which includes Mount Greylock Regional) at $716 and Richmond at $847.
"The larger the district the lower the cost," he said.
Within the union, Lanesborough pays $468 per pupil for the four major administrative positions whereas Williamstown pays $353 and Mount Greylock pays $351.
DiLego said those numbers don't mean a whole lot though. She cited the town having one of the highest tax rates while still being toward the middle in average tax bills.
"You can use numbers to show whatever you want," she said.
Friday's meeting was attended by the public, former School Committee members and representatives from Superintendency Union 71, Mount Greylock Regional High School and Williamstown Elementary. Those who spoke said that while the administrative costs are high, they can be lowered without dismantling the union.
"We stand ready to work with you regarding the concerns you have," said Williamstown School Committee Chairwoman Valerie Hall, also a Union 71 representative.
Chris Dodig, a Lanesborough representative on the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee, said there is no reason to "throw the baby out with the bath water." While there may have been disagreements with the contracts and the people in administrative roles, that doesn't mean the entire system is flawed, he said.
Overall, much of the concern was over the suddenness of the withdrawal proposal because the formation of the union had many public input sessions before an ultimate decision was reached.
Barton's proposal hadn't been discussed by the School Committee prior to him requesting the money from the Selectmen for the two related studies. Both Lanesborough and Williamstown school officials were taken by surprise when the news broke.