Mount Greylock Regional School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene and Building Committee Chairman Mark Schiek address the Williamstown Selectmen on Monday.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School District's recent trend of declining enrollment will continue but slow, according to projections from the commonwealth's school building authority.
School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene met Monday night with the Selectmen to discuss the enrollment figures and some of the issues that have cropped up in recent months as the district attempts to move forward in the Massachusetts School Building Authority process.
From a peak of about 1,200 students, the junior-senior high school currently has 585 students, a number that has fallen by more than 200 in the last 13 years alone.
The MSBA projects a 10-year average of 535 students going forward, and that is the number it recommended the district uses if and when it enters the feasibility study phase of the building process.
But given the current political situation in the the district's other member town, it is not surprising that 535 number is the subject of debate.
And some officials in Lanesborough are arguing that Mount Greylock ought not to build based on enrollment numbers that factor in students from New Ashford and Hancock — two towns that are not part of the district but who have historically tuitioned a high percentage of their students into Mount Greylock.
"Historically, because we have a large building and a declining population, we fill with school choice," Greene said. "Our goal is to get to 100 students in each grade, and if we have fewer than 100, we may add some choice. ... At some point you have to step back and say: You have 100 choice students and tuition students in your school. Is that how you want to operate?
"That's a perfectly valid question, and the MSBA asked it as well."
Greene said some in Lanesborough have suggested that the district should offer New Ashford and Hancock a choice: join the district as full members or find another school for their students.
"Tuition students pay about three-quarters of the cost of education," Greene said, referring to the rate negotiated between the district and the sending towns. "School choice has a limit of $5,000 per student. We estimate the cost as closer to $16,000. There's a sense no one else but member towns are paying the full cost of education.
"And only member towns pay the cost of a capital project. A *charter school
can factor the cost of a capital project into tuition, but a [traditional] public school can't."
"It comes down to who's paying for the building," Mount Greylock Building Committee Chairman Mark Schiek said. "Someone is getting a free ride is the feeling some people have. I don't think that's necessarily an incorrect attitude to have because [Williamstown and Lanesborough] are carrying the burden of any building project."
The MSBA has agreed to rework its enrollment projections based on the two member towns only, Greene said. But at some point the district will have to decide which enrollment figures it will use for the feasibility study.
In the theory, that deadline is mid-July, when Mount Greylock's 270-day MSBA eligibility phase ends.
As a practical matter, the district wants to have a definitive enrollment figure in place when it goes to Williamstown's and Lanesborough's town meetings, in May and June, respectively, to ask for funding for a feasibility study.
"If there's a lot of disagreement on what the enrollment number should be, we'll have trouble winning those votes," Greene said.
Several voices were raised in favor of a yes vote on the feasibility study at Monday's meeting.
Selectman David Rempell characterized the recent questions that threaten to derail the building project as "discouraging."
"If we don't succeed with the opportunity we have now, my fear is 10 years from now we will still be sending children to a building that is not educationally sound," Rempell said.
Schiek's co-chair on the MGRS Building Committee elaborated on that point.
"The [New England Association of Schools and Colleges] folks, who have put the school on warning, are waiting for something to happen on the building," Paula Consolini said. "If the MSBA process doesn't go forward, we are at serious risk of losing accreditation."
A prominent local realtor at Monday's meeting said residents in both member towns face financial risks if they ultimately decide to do nothing with the outdated and dysfunctional school building.
"There is a large population of parents of children who are entering into the high school phase or looking at the high school phase who are clearly supportive of this project," Paul Harsch said. "There are also a lot of people who don't see the benefit. ... I'm afraid they're missing a significant reality. The new school will benefit everybody.
"If we lose our reputation, if we lose more population because our school is a mess or crummy or just barely repaired, we will continue to see the draining population effect accelerate. ... The real estate values are influenced by the quality of schools and population trends.
"There isn't a soul in this area who won't be affected, whether they live in Hancock or New Ashford or Lanesborough or Williamstown."
Greene told the Selectmen that Lanesborough officials have called a meeting for March 27 to discuss the enrollment projection issue.
"I think they're going to roll out the alternative study they commissioned," she said. "I think most of the conversation will center around the configuration of the district. I think it's important for Williamstown also to have a say. There needs to be voices from both member towns."
Clarification: Julia Bowen, director of Berkshire Arts & Technology Public Charter School, explained to us that charter schools cannot simply raise tuition to cover capital expenses.
"We have no ability to increase our tuition rate above what local districts spend," she wrote us. "Additionally, we do not receive any capital funds from the state; we have to finance any capital expenditures through fundraising or private debt. Debt service then comes out of our tuition."