Chairwoman Carolyn Greene and committee member Chris Dodig, a Lanesborough representative, debate enrollment numbers at Tuesday's School Committee meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A divided Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Tuesday decided to certify an enrollment projection of 535 to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
The vote brought to a close more than a month of discussion in at least five different committee and subcommittee meetings about whether the district would stay with the enrollment figure originally suggested by MSBA, pick a lower figure that eliminated tuition and School Choice students from the junior-senior high school or find a middle ground.
The final vote — which overturned a decision from the School Committee's April 13 meeting — came by a 4-3 margin, with all three representatives from the town of Lanesborough voting in the minority.
The 535 number will be used during the feasibility study stage of the MSBA's school building program if Mount Greylock's member towns, Lanesborough and Williamstown, approve the feasibility study at their annual town meetings, scheduled, respectively, for May 20 and June 10.
Lanesborough town officials originally asked Mount Greylock to find out what the potential enrollment number would be if the school district stopped accepting tuition and School Choice students. Several residents of the town had expressed frustration that tuition and choice students are "subsidized" by residents of the member towns because they do not bring in funding commensurate with the per-pupil cost of education at Mount Greylock, about $16,000 per student.
By state law, school districts receive $5,000 per student under the School Choice program. School districts negotiate their tuition agreements with sending towns — Hancock and New Ashford in Mount Greylock's case. This spring, Mount Greylock officials negotiated a five-year tuition agreement with Hancock and New Ashford that will gradually increase the per-pupil tuition rate to match the per-pupil cost of education.
On Tuesday, two of the Lanesborough residents on the Mount Greylock committee made a final argument for the district to cut back on the number of School Choice students, if only to be responsive to the very Lanesborough voters who will decide the fate of the feasibility study in a little more than a month.
"There's a group of people out there who don't like School Choice," Chris Dodig said. "And there's a group of people, myself included, who have mixed feelings about choice."
Everyone at the table on Tuesday agreed that the tuition students are no longer an issue for voters in the member towns. The new tuition agreement addresses the funding disparity, and Monday's annual town meeting in Hancock affirmed that community's commitment to Mount Greylock.
The issue is School Choice, and, in reality, only that subset of School Choice students admitted to Mount Greylock as seventh- through 12th-graders. After seeking input from state officials, the committee is operating on the assumption that children are accepted under School Choice at either Williamstown or Lanesborough can attend Mount Greylock by right.
That means — with tuition and "grandfathered" choice students in the mix — the school's enrollment projection already would be north of 500, Dodig said.
He argued that the committee send MSBA a projected enrollment of 515 or 520, essentially splitting the difference as a gesture of good faith to tax-strapped voters.
"My driving principle is to see [the feasibility study] pass," Dodig said. "It's going to be an easier thing to pass and argue in favor of at town meetings if we have a smaller number."
Robert Ericson, who also sits on the Lanesborough Board of Selectmen, was more direct.
"I'm opposed to the 535 number because I'm opposed to our current level of choice students," Ericson said. "I'm not against the choice program, per se, but we have ramped up the number of choice students allowed at the school. ... They continue to inflate those numbers at the elementary schools. Those numbers will force our townspeople to pay more to educate their students."
As he has throughout the spring, Ericson argued that the 17 School Choice students in a typical Mount Greylock grade force the school to pay an additional teacher per grade each year just to teach the School Choice population.
"Every time you have presented those figures ... and time and time again I and other people have said that's flawed reasoning," shot back David Langston, one of four Williamstown residents on the committee. "Those students are not clustered in a classroom. They're sprinkled here and there."
The Mount Greylock School Committee, which already received a three-week extension from the MSBA to decide the enrollment question, consulted with MSBA's Diane Sullivan on Monday to learn whether the authority would allow the district to certify its own "compromise" figure. The authority came up with both the 535 and 450 number.
Not surprisingly, different School Committee members on the conference call with the Boston official had different takeaways from that meeting.
Dodig said he was encouraged that the MSBA was showing some flexibility, although it would not be easy to create the supporting documents to back up a third enrollment figure. Dodig indicated he thought the work was worth doing.
Langston and Greene said they thought Sullivan was frustrated with the committee for dragging out the process, and they feared further delay could jeopardize Mount Greylock's place in the building program.
"The negative side [of a lower number] is MSBA then has a reason to say we need to step out of the queue for our building authorization and start the process all over again," Langston said. "I think it's playing with fire, and I don't want to do that."
"They're frustrated," she said of the state officials. "According to MSBA, we are 535. That's the number they believe in. That's the number they trust. It's based on the best projection they can come up with. Any other number won't be backed up with the data.
"We don't have time to demonstrate the validity of another number. The 535 has validity for the MSBA."
In the end, the swing vote was Colleen Taylor, a Williamstown resident who last month sided with Dodig, Ericson and Lanesborough's Sheila Hebert.
During Tuesday's discussion, Taylor said she shared Dodig's concern about addressing School Choice to be responsive to voters' concerns.
"I think we need to listen to those voices and give a little bit," Taylor said.
"I wish we could," Langston responded. "I just think the risks are too large. I think the problem is we're between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the MSBA's number, and the hard place is people who think there's a magic elixir by doing to a lower number. We have to go with the higher number and trust that the townspeople understand the logic."
Superintendent Rose Ellis also addressed Taylor's concern by noting the committee has been responsive to taxpayers by negotiating higher tuition rates and by working with Lanesborough officials on an independent enrollment projection (which came back higher than MSBA's) and by debating the enrollment question for weeks.
"Some people do see [School Choice] as a problem, and some people don't see it as a problem," Greene said. "But is it our problem to solve right now or do we have another problem: maintaining a healthy relationship with MSBA and the communities we serve?
"We can't predict the future," she said later in the meeting. "We just have to make the best decision we can with the information we have. I'm confident we all have the best interest of the Mount Greylock community in our minds and in our hearts."