Mount Greylock Committee Rejects Enrollment Recommendation

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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School Committee members Robert Ericson and David Langston were on opposites of the enrollment debate.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Thursday night started on a road that could lead to the elimination of choice and tuition students at the junior-senior high school.
On a vote of 4-2, the committee rejected the enrollment recommendation of the School Building Committee to instead certify a "study enrollment" to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
The study enrollment provision allows districts entering the MSBA's feasibility study process to do so with two enrollment projections under consideration.
In Mount Greylock's case, the two possibilities are 535 students and 450 students. The School Building Committee had advised using 535.
The higher figure represents MSBA's original projection, taking into account declining population in Berkshire County but continuing on the assumption that Mount Greylock will continue to accept students from 10 towns — not just the two member towns, Wiliamstown and Lanesborough.
The lower figure is a second projection developed by the state authority that assumes the school will be exclusive to residents of the two towns.
Chairwoman Carolyn Greene for the second time in a week argued strenuously for a vision that keeps Mount Greylock more like the school it is today and cautioned that by voting for a study enrollment the district was saying it could live with or without choice and tuition students.
"I've had several conversations with Diane Sullivan at MSBA," Greene said, referring to the authority's director of program management. "And I think the point she tried to make about study enrollments is you have to be absolutely sure that you can live with either of those numbers — that you can envision a school as 450 or 535, because you don't know how the studies are going to come out.
"You have to essentially be willing to say, yes, we could be a two-member town only. If you're not willing to say that right now, you shouldn't vote for the study enrollment."
All three Lanesborough residents on the seven-member board voted in favor of the study enrollment. Lanesborough's Chris Dodig made the motion to certify the study enrollment, and he was joined by Robert Ericson, Sheila Hebert and Williamstown resident Colleen Taylor.
Greene and David Backus voted against the study enrollment. David Langston spoke in favor of the higher enrollment figure but had to leave the special meeting because of a prior commitment.
Dodig argued that the question of how large a school Mount Greylock needs is very much in doubt. He said the district should be able to work with the MSBA during the feasibility phase and suggested the correct enrollment figure could end up being somewhere between 450 and 535.
He also argued that the uncertainty in one of the towns that currently pays tuition to send its students to Mount Greylock makes it difficult to plan on its long-term participation.
"What if Hancock votes to use New Lebanon [N.Y.] as its primary school?" Dodig asked rhetorically. "[That would reduce] 535 by 30 students. ... Certifying [535] today in the face of this risk seems irresponsible."
Greene sought to allay those fears by pointing out a newly negotiated five-year tuition agreement with Hancock and New Ashford that the School Committee approved Thursday in a separate vote.
Greene said the district's negotiation with the Hancock School Committee — which decides where to send the town's middle and high school students — indicates a strong commitment on the part of that panel to Mount Greylock.
Chairwoman Carolyn Greene again argued to keep school-choice and tuition students in the mix.
On the other hand, there is an article on Hancock's annual town meeting warrant that seeks to advise the School Committee to withdraw from Mount Greylock and North Adams' McCann Technical School. That article has the support of the chairman of Hancock's Board of Selectmen.
"The School Committee already voted," Greene said, referring to the five-year deal that brings tuition rates in line with the per-pupil cost of education at Mount Greylock. "It's in their purview — not the town's."
Dodig said an overwhelming vote at Hancock's May 5 town meeting could sway the elected members of the town's School Committee.
Mount Greylock administrators argue that diminishing the size of the school would mean cutting back on programming — a move that would particularly impact high-achieving and underachieving students.
The revenue Mount Greylock receives from school choice students — though significantly lower than the per pupil cost of education — not only helps reduce its annual assessment to the member towns, it helps the school offer a more diverse academic program, Superintendent Rose Ellis has argued.
But on Thursday, Hebert said she had looked at the recently constructed smaller school in Maynard and she disagreed with Ellis' assessment of that school's academic program as "homogenous."
"They have very fine programming," Hebert said. "They have [Advanced Placement] programs like we do. They may not have all that we do, but they do have a very fine education program over there.
"All I know is we have not delved into our programming here — what works, what doesn't, what we should keep and what we shouldn't."
Taylor and Ericson both argued that a new or renovated school should not be built to accommodate school-choice students.
In the discussion leading to a subsequent vote on Mount Greylock's school choice slots for the 2014-15 academic year, Ericson made a motion that the school immediately cut off choice slots in anticipation of a smaller building down the road.
"I think it's time we study this issue better than we have in the past," Ericson said. "Now is the time to do it."
Ericson's motion to opt out of school choice for next year was defeated on a vote of 5-1. Instead, after a lengthy discussion, the committee decided to accept the school-choice recommendations made by the school's administration — recommendations Ellis characterized as "conservative," in keeping with Mount Greylock's practice.
In the current academic year, Mount Greylock has 64 school-choice students in a population of 581, representing 11 percent of the student body.
On Thursday, the committee approved opening up to 27 choice slots, which — if all filled — would bring enrollment to 595 with choice students representing, once again, 11 percent. 

Tags: enrollment,   MGRHS,   MSBA,   school choice,   tuition,   

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