Hancock voters weigh in on whether the town should continue sending its children to Mount Greylock Regional School.
HANCOCK, Mass. — Town meeting voters on Monday overwhelmingly decided to continue the town's tuition agreements with Mount Greylock Regional School and Charles H. McCann Technical School.
The annual town meeting warrant included an article generated by petition that called for the town to make New Lebanon High School in New York the school of choice for junior and senior high school students from the border town.
But after several impassioned pleas from the floor to preserve the current choices available to Hancock families, a show of hands found that only a handful of the 146 voters in the room — perhaps fewer than the 10 signatures required to put it on the ballot — favored pulling out of agreements with the two Massachusetts schools.
"I don't have a child in town, and I don't have grandchildren in town, but I want these children to be educated," Mary Walker-Dagesse said during a lengthy discussion that foretold the ultimate wide margin of defeat for the article.
The article noted the town's tuition payment per student at the two Massachusetts schools is considerably higher than the rates it pays at New Lebanon High School and the New Lebanon BOCES technical school, the New York district's equivalent of McCann Tech.
At Mount Greylock and McCann, the town pays $11,910 and $19,461, per student, respectively. At the New Lebanon schools, it pays $8,278 per student.
Currently, Hancock families have a choice to send their children under tuition agreements either to New Lebanon or to one of three Massachusetts schools — Mount Greylock, McCann or Monument Mountain (a better geographic option for families on the south end of town).
In the 2013-14 school year, four students from the town attend New Lebanon under a tuition agreement, according to the town report.
On the other hand, 23 Hancock students attend Mount Greylock, and six attend McCann. Two Hancock students attend Monument Mountain; 10 attend Richmond Consolidated School, which goes through Grade 8, and likely would end up at Monument Mountain.
Monday's Hancock vote was watched closely by the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee, which is scheduled to meet on Tuesday to discuss the enrollment projection it wants to certify to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
Currently, the district has two enrollment numbers on the table. One is based on continuing enrollment patterns currently in place at Mount Greylock, which means continuing the tuition arrangements with Hancock and New Ashford. A smaller enrollment projection is also under consideration that would be based on opening Mount Greylock only to residents of the district's member towns, Williamstown and Lanesborough.
The MSBA gave the Mount Greylock School Committee an extension in picking an enrollment number — partly because of uncertainty surrounding the Hancock warrant article.
Much of the discussion on Monday centered on the relative merits of Mount Greylock and New Lebanon.
But another issue was whether the warrant article could force the Hancock School Committee to take a course of action or if it was merely advisory.
Hancock School Committee Chairwoman Patricia Bishop said it was the latter.
"This is not binding," she said from the floor of the meeting. "This would just give the School Committee information to see if we would think about that."
But attorney Glenn Keiderling of Lee's Hannon Lerner Law Firm told the meeting he consulted on the matter with the town's counsel, and it was of the opinion the warrant article was binding.
As it happened, the strength of the article was a moot point.
But Moderator Brian Fairbank told the meeting that the issues of rising education costs and funding issues are not going away.
"This is a complex issue," Fairbank said during the floor debate. "However it's voted tonight, the School Committee is going to have to deal with it in the future."
Board of Selectmen Chairman Sherman Derby, who previously said he signed the petition to put the article on the warrant, noted that increasing tuition rates are going to continue to upset the town's budget.
Hancock School Committee Chairwoman Patricia Bishop addresses the annual town meeting.
Derby pressed Bishop for information about a new five-year tuition agreement her committee negotiated with Mount Greylock — specifically the 5 percent per year increases in the agreement.
"The School committee is under Prop 2 1/2," Derby said. "If your budget gets too big because these people keep raising their tuition, you'll need a 2/3 vote, and those don't usually pass."
Later in the debate, when a voter from the floor asked how each member of the three-man Board of Selectmen felt about the warrant article, Derby declined to answer.
"It's not a personal issue," he said. "You've got a motion on the floor, and that's what you're voting on — not what we feel."
The town's voters also went against Derby on another warrant article on Tuesday night.
Town meeting was asked whether the town should use $200,000 from the Fire Department's stabilization fund and $160,000 from the town's free cash account to buy a new fire engine.
Derby told the meeting the Board of Selectmen recommended against draining that much money from the free cash account and asked the Fire Department to take $75,000 this year and wait a year for the rest.
"Free cash is the only thing saving us on the tax rate," Derby told the meeting.
In a secret ballot vote, the voters decided by a margin of 126-20 to take the full $160,000 from free cash to help purchase the fire engine.
Town meeting approved, without comment, all of its spending measures. The big ticket item was the school budget of $1.12 million. The town budget includes highways ($106,500), town operating budget ($95,814), "unclassified expenses" ($77,753), public safety ($64,000), the transfer station ($60,000) and salaries for elected and appointed officials ($44,183).
About 29 percent of Hancock's registered voters attended the meeting; 146 voters checked in from a list that numbers 512.