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Lanesborough School Delays Union 71 Vote

By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff
02:57AM / Thursday, January 30, 2014
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The School Committee opted not to make a vote on giving an intent to leave the union.

LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — The School Committee opted on Wednesday to delay a vote on whether to stay with Superintendency Union 71.

Chairman Robert Barton was leading the charge for a vote of intent but after opposition from the public, backed off until more legal advice was sought.

Barton saw the vote as a way to legally prevent the town from being locked into long-term contracts, which the union is expected to decide in the coming months.

But Mount Greylock School Committee Chairwoman Carrie Greene said the district's attorney had voiced a different opinion when she spoke with him Monday. Greene was at the meeting to deliver a message from the regional committee.

The school district shares administrative costs with its union member, Williamstown School District, and the Mount Greylock Regional School District, which educates the middle and high students in both towns.

Barton clarified that the vote wouldn't be a surefire way to prevent the contracts, but instead gives the town legal standing if it leaves the district.

"It would not be a guaranteed protection. We would have to have litigation," Barton said, backing off from his previous statements.

Barton hoped for the School Committee would vote in favor of giving an intent to leave the district to buy time to consider options for school's administrative costs.

"The trap that we're in, is that being a member of a union we are obligated for any long-term contracts that the union signs," Barton said. "The idea was to create a time to analyze the best long-term affiliation."

Most of a dozen or so residents commended Barton for looking for ways to reduce costs, but said separating from the union was not the way to achieve those ends.

Rich Cohen presented an array of information showing that the district's administrative costs are below state average. The town wouldn't save much money by changing districts, he said, but educational achievement and even property values could drop.

"The more you spend on administration, the better the test scores are. It is a significant impact," he said, adding that studies have linked property value declines to lower test scoring.

Residents boasted of the educational attainment of Lanesborough Elementary and Mount Greylock Regional High schools; the high school has the highest SAT scores in the county and ranked by the state as Level 1 schools. Part of their success, according to Superintendent Rose Ellis, is because the schools provide additional services because of the shared administrative staff.

Robert Barton led the charge is asking for a vote to leave the union. He hoped stating the intent would protect the town from getting locked into long-term contracts.

"We're able to provide services that larger districts provide at a lower cost," Ellis said, particularly of a behavior specialist, a position most districts in the county contract out at a much higher rate.

While Barton claims Lanesborough has a high administrative costs, presenting a number of $809 per student against $582 in larger districts, Ellis compared the overall dollar figures to other districts show the town pays less than others.

Ellis showed that with 205 students, Lanesborough Elementary is paying $91,070 for the four major positions, which translates to $444 per student. That figure is less than Lee and the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, she said, with $525 per student and $499 per student respectively.

Meanwhile, $165,767 in costs are charged to Lanesborough with the agreement for positions many districts don't even have. For example, the town pays $12,852 for services for a SPED director whereas Adams pays $70,000 and Pittsfield pays $84,500. All of the other districts contract out the service, she said.

Positions such as a bookkeeper, behavior specialists and curriculum director all come at a discounted cost because of the union, she said. The Supervisory Union 71's agreements give value to the money spent on those positions.

"The key factor in this analysis, in the blue box, it isn't not really the cost of administration that is the problem, it is the population," Ellis said in presenting a spreadsheet of cost comparisons, adding that many of the costs are fixed.

Sharing services allow for the district to provide more for less, she said.

"I believe that Lanesborough and the students of Lanesborough Elementary have benefited greatly from Union 71," said Lanesborough resident and member of Mount Greylock's building committee Mark Sheik.

School Committee member James Moriarty, however, said the cost per-student numbers were striking and was prepared to cast the intent to leave vote to ensure the school can examine other options.

"This is troubling: $582 to $809. I have to say it's troubling," he said, later adding, "I do not want to be tied up and if that means we need a vote tonight, we need a vote tonight."

He later added that with a vote, "we have some legal flexibility."

School Committee member Regina DiLego responded, "you have the flexibility of three votes on a six-member committee."

DiLego is chairman of the six-member superintendency union committee.

If all three Lanesborough members of SU 71 vote together on any contracts posed to the union, it would achieve the same ends, said Barton, and with the agreement they would all attend the next Union 71 meeting, he posed delaying the vote.

"I think Lanesborough really has an obligation to look for alternatives when these type of differences jump out," he said. "I think this is a moment when we should pause, understand these figures and look for alternatives."

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