New Lebanon High School is about 10 miles from Hancock Elementary School. Mount Greylock is eight miles from the elementary school.
HANCOCK, Mass. — It looks like Lanesborough is going to get its answer on whether Hancock would like to join the regional district.
The question just will be phrased a little differently.
At Hancock's May 5 annual town meeting, residents will be asked whether they want to remove Mount Greylock Regional School as an option for town residents with children in Grades 7 through 12.
Voters will be asked to instead recommend that the School Committee deem New Lebanon Central High School in Lebanon Springs, N.Y., as "the school of choice" for the town. As part of the same motion, townspeople will be asked whether students seeking a technical education should be "tuitioned in" to New Lebanon's BOCES Tech instead of North Adams' McCann Technical School.
The article on the town meeting warrant was initiated by petition and calls attention to the fact that tuition rates for the two New York schools are significantly lower than those for their Massachusetts counterparts.
The article has the support of the longtime chairman of the Hancock Board of Selectmen, who says it is difficult for the town to afford the spiraling costs of an education at the Bay State schools and that students can receive just as good an education across the state line.
Just last week, at a forum on enrollment projections at Mount Greylock, the town administrator from Lanesborough (one of two member towns in the Mount Greylock Regional School District) suggested that the junior-senior high school's "tuition towns" be asked whether they want to fully join the district.
"One thing we thought was — if there was any way the towns could poll their residents, perhaps at their annual meetings, to see if there was support," Paul Sieloff said at last Thursday's meeting at Lanesborough Town Hall.
The tone of the Hancock town meeting article is a little different than what Sieloff suggested, but it takes a different path to the heart of the issue: Does Hancock want to be part of the Mount Greylock district?
It is a question on the minds of residents in both Lanesborough and Hancock, but for different reasons.
At last Thursday's meeting, a Lanesborough selectman who also is an elected member of the Mount Greylock School Committee presented numbers that show tuition students (from Hancock, New Ashford and Richmond) cost Mount Greylock significantly more than they generate in revenue.
One impassioned speaker from the floor repeatedly said Lanesborough residents cannot afford to "subsidize" students from the three sending towns and suggested those towns should either join the district — and support the full cost per pupil like Lanesborough and Williamstown — or the district should stop accepting tuition students altogether.
Lanesborough Selectman Robert Ericson told Thursday's meeting the cost per student at Mount Greylock is about $16,000 — a number he said he kept artificially low "so no one could accuse me of overestimating."
Meanwhile, Hancock pays the district $11,910 per student. That is a bargain from the perspective of cash-strapped Lanesborough, which already has sent the Mount Greylock School Committee back to the drawing board during fiscal 2015 discussions because the district's proposed assessment was too high.
"I have nothing against New Ashford or Hancock ... but don't ask me to subsidize someone else because no one is subsidizing me," Lanesborough resident Ray Jones said on Thursday night. "This has got to end."
It will if the petitioners get their way in Hancock.
Clearly, the author of Article 16 on the current draft of the town meeting warrant does not see Mount Greylock as a "bargain."
The article compares the $11,910 per student cost at the Williamstown school to the $8,278 per student charged by New Lebanon. It also lists a rate of $19,461 at McCann Tech compared to $8,278 at the New Lebanon BOCES. New York's Boards of Cooperative Educational Services are multidistrict partnerships that support technical training.
"The education at New Lebanon and the education at Mount Greylock I think are on par," Hancock Selectmen Chairman Sherman Derby said last week. "Mount Greylock has better sports programs, maybe."
Derby said his was one of the 10 signatures needed to put the question on the town meeting warrant.
The article notes that students still could attend Mount Greylock as part of the commonwealth's school-choice program, but it is unlikely the school district will be inclined to open more school-choice slots any time soon.
Under school choice, where the funding comes from the state instead of the town, Mount Greylock is compensated at a rate of $5,000 per student, which is deducted from the state aid allotment to the sending town.
Derby indicated Mount Greylock's and McCann's tuition rates are driving the push among some Hancock residents to seek alternatives.
"I'm not saying Mount Greylock isn't good, but we may not be able to afford it," he said.
And the price tag at McCann is even higher.
"The cost of education has skyrocketed," Derby said. "Mount Greylock is pushing $16,000. McCann is $19,400. That's MCLA money.
"It's a good school, and it's a good fit for some students. My grandson just graduated from there. But so is New Lebanon a good fit.
"You have to look at the town and how you manage the town and be open-minded about it."
The chairwman of the Mount Greylock School Committee said her group discussed the Hancock warrant article in a meeting on Friday afternoon. Carolyn Greene said she is in the process of setting up a meeting with representatives from the school committees in Hancock and New Ashford.
"The position of the Mount Greylock School Committee is that we would like to continue our relationship with both Hancock and New Ashford," Green wrote in response to an email seeking comment. "We believe it to be a mutually beneficial partnership that is good for both our students and our communities. We do, however, acknowledge the very strong desire on the part of many people in both Lanesborough and Williamstown to bring the rate of tuition up so that it is closer to the actual cost of educating our students. This can be done gradually, over a period of several years, but it needs to happen.
"Ideally, we would like both non-member towns to join the MG Regional School District, once we have regionalized preK-12. This preK-12 regionalization could happen as early as fall 2014 if both member towns agree. This would require special town meetings in both Williamstown and Lanesborough. New Ashford and Hancock could certainly take votes to join the region at that time as well. This would give each of these towns a seat at the table."
Greene said she hopes a dialogue between Mount Greylock and town officials will help residents understand the issue before Town Meeting.
According to Derby and the chairman of the Hancock School Committee, the article on the town meeting warrant is advisory. The five elected members of the School Committee decide what options to offer Hancock residents, some of whom already send their children to New Lebanon.
School Committee Chairwoman Patricia Bishop said her committee was not formally aware of the warrant article at its last meeting and has not been able to discuss it. The committee likely will meet twice before town meeting — on April 7 and at 6 p.m. on May 5, before the 7 p.m. annual town meeting.
Bishop did not say whether the town meeting article will be on the agenda at either meeting, and she declined to express an opinion on the merits of the article before such a discussion.
"My understanding is that the vote at town meeting is non-binding [on the committee], but obviously we'd have to take that into consideration," Bishop said.
She noted that the article does not address the question of where to send Hancock students from the south end of town, some of whom attend high schools in central and Southern Berkshire County. She said those issues may come up on the floor of town meeting.
Bishop has served on the town's School Committee for 14 years, and she said the committee has never had any issues with the quality of education at either New Lebanon or Mount Greylock.
"I know parents will state their opinion and townspeople will state the opinion that one is better than the other," she said. "One of the reasons we offer the option is that students learn in different ways, and sometimes the smallness of New Lebanon works better for some students than others."
New Lebanon has about 250 students in Grades 7 through 12, according to the school's website. Mount Greylock's 2013-14 enrollment is 585.
Bishop said the high cost of tuition at Mount Greylock is not a new issue.
"We've always had the challenge when dealing with tuition that Mount Greylock tuition goes higher and higher and makes it more difficult for us to afford to send our students there," she said.
Derby said the higher cost at Mount Greylock was not an problem three decades ago, when the town used to pay a lump sum to support students' education and the families made up the difference based on which high school they chose. That model changed when Massachusetts introduced school choice, he said; now the town has to bear the entire tuition cost.
"At that time, if you wanted to go to Mount Greylock, you could go up there," he said. "But there'd be no transportation.
"Now, because of the cost of maintaining Mount Greylock ... The [teachers'] benefits at Mount Greylock are very, very liberal, very good. That population doesn't mind spending money."
The full text of the warrant article:
"To see if the Town will vote to change and replace the existing tuition language with the following: 'The school of choice for seventh, eighth grade plus high school will be New Lebanon Central High School in Lebanon Springs, N.Y. Students wishing to attend Mt. Greylock still may do so under school choice. The students that are presently at Mt. Greylock or McCann can continue there as tuition students until twelvth grade if they choose.' "