SU71 Vice Chairman Dan Caplinger of Williamstown and Chairwoman Regina DiLego of Lanesborough.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The future of cooperation between Williamstown and Lanesborough’s elementary schools and the Mount Greylock Regional School was at issue on Thursday in a joint meeting of the Superintendency Union 71 Committee and the junior-senior high school's elected officials.
The "summit" of school committee members from all three schools in the so-called Tri-District was precipitated by this winter’s decision by a member of the Lanesborough Elementary School Committee to challenge the existence of SU71.
Thursday's meeting was at times tense, but at the end of the evening the respective school committees agreed to discuss the issue more and will meet jointly again on June 16 at Lanesborough Elementary to discuss the future of shared services.
Superintendency Union 71 is the agreement by which Lanesborough Elementary School and Williamstown Elementary School share a school superintendent.
On top of that agreement, there is a contract between SU71 and Mount Greylock to share costs on the three districts' superintendent and other administrative staff.
In January, Lanesborough School Committee Chairman Robert Barton told town officials that Lanesborough needs to look at breaking up SU71, a decision that also would end the existing arrangement between the elementary schools and Mount Greylock.
The issue is coming to a head because current Tri-District Superintendent Rose Ellis — who in the past has had three- and five-year contracts — requested a two-year contract that expires June 30, 2015, signaling the need for the three districts to begin a search for a new superintendent.
Ellis came to Northern Berkshire County in 2000 to serve as superintendent at Williamstown. In 2008, when SU71 formed, she took over as superintendent of WES and LES. In 2010, when the superintendent at Mount Greylock retired, Ellis took that position, and the Tri-District model was born.
Ellis has advised the school committees they need to start finding her replacement next fall at the latest.
On Thursday at Williamstown Elementary School, the committee members tried to decide whether they will be searching together or conducting separate searches.
SU71 Chairwoman Regina DiLego, among others, made the case for continued shared services.
"I love that we share a director of pupil services," DiLego said. "Then our students ... go right from pre-K all the way through 12th grade with consistency in programming. I think that’s a great thing.
"Costwise, it's great sharing a superintendent. In terms of her knowing our teachers and all of us, that's a plus.
"A negative, is that Mount Greylock has a lot going on. If we decided to continue to share a superintendent, I'd be of a mind we actually would need an assistant superintendent. That's going to raise costs, but it does benefit us educationally."
Prior to holding a joint meeting with members of the Mount Greylock School Committee, the SU71 Committee — comprised of representatives from LES and WES — discussed whether the two elementary schools would continue sharing services.
Pressed for an answer by committee Chairwoman Regina DiLego, Barton said he agreed the two schools should "continue what we're doing" on an interim basis, but he expressed a preference for hiring an interim superintendent while the two towns decide whether the two elementaries continue to figure out their long-term plans.
He also said he wants the schools to look at creating a larger regional district, specifically mentioning some neighboring towns that could be brought in.
During the meeting with the Mount Greylock committee, both of those suggestions were countered.
The idea of an interim superintendent was discouraged by the committee's legal counsel, Fred Dupere, who said from his experience with other school districts, the interim solution was not a good fit for the Tri-District.
"This is a massive job," Dupere said. "I represent a lot of school districts ... and see a lot of interims come and do a good job. Those interims don't want this job."
As for the question of expanded regionalization, the Mount Greylock School Committee members noted that the district spent the better part of a year studying the question of whether to expand the junior-senior high school district to a Pre-K through 12 district that includes the elementaries from the member towns, Williamstown and Lanesborough.
But Mount Greylock put its regionalization discussion on hold this fall when the committee decided to devote its energy to participation in the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s process.
MGRS Committee members reminded Barton on Thursday that the district could expand (either by just adding LES and WES or by seeking other elementary school districts as partners) any time, but the MSBA has a schedule and a series of milestones Mount Greylock has to reach in order to remain eligible for a 53 percent state match for a potential rebuild or renovation.
Lanesborough Elementary School Committee members Robert Barton, left, and Jim Moriarty.
Mount Greylock officials said that discussions about expanded regionalization could distract the district from its primary mission: addressing infrastructure deficiencies at Mount Greylock.
"I think it's important to keep [the Tri-District] together if we're not keeping something together that gets in the way of the building project," Mount Greylock Committee member David Langston said. "If we don't do that, we're screwed all the way down the line. We're screwed financially, screwed in programming, screwed in terms of finding a new superintendent."
Not surprisingly, Barton's attitudes about continued cooperation between the elementary schools and with the junior-senior high school were very much at issue at Thursday's meeting.
Langston noted that discussions about dissolving the school union and/or the Tri-District will make it difficult to find a superintendent.
"You can't hire excellent people when it looks like the land you're standing on is going to turn to quicksand," he said. "We need a solid foundation."
Mount Greylock Committee member Colleen Taylor agreed.
"I don't think someone is going to want to come in if there is this fractured group," she said. "We're sending mixed messages that way."
Ellis said the messages are reverberating in the school today.
"I have to say that the foundations of the relationship [between Williamstown and Lanesborogh] have been seriously shaken," Ellis said. "The staff asks about it up at the high school. I've been at Mount Greylock for four years, and there's never been questions about the connection between the two communities.
"This year, that's been tampered with."
At the end of the night, the school committee members agreed to continue the shared services discussion at their next meetings: May 27 at 7 p.m. for Mount Greylock, June 11 at 7 p.m. for Williamstown and June 12 at 3:30 p.m. for Lanesborough.
SU71 meets again on June 16 at 7 p.m. in Lanesborough.