WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The committee looking at expanding the Mount Greylock Regional School District discussed on Monday how to make the case for expansion to voters who may be on the fence.
The district's revived Regional District Amendment Committee held its second meeting since it was reconvened by the Mount Greylock School Committee this spring, and it was clear that the panel has strong arguments on its side and serious concerns to overcome.
Mount Greylock Principal Mary MacDonald and Lanesborough Elementary School Principal Marty McEvoy told their colleagues on the RDAC about the educational gains that have been made in the last few years as cooperation between the elementary schools and Mount Greylock have better prepared youngsters to enter seventh grade at the junior-senior high school.
"You might have three different bubbles again if you went backward," McEvoy said, referring to the days before the three schools operated under the same superintendent. "You could have a superintendent at one of the schools who broke away. There'd be no incentive for them to work together … and you could tell where a kid went to school or didn't go to school based on what they know in class at Mount Greylock."
MacDonald and McEvoy talked about the professional development opportunities that have been created for teachers and staff at all three schools under the Tri-District umbrella.
"With [interim superintendent Kimberley Grady] the three principals and assistant principals have been able to come together to get professional development on legal issues and [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] issues.
"Marty is a single administrator in his building, and he can speak to [Mount Greylock Assistant Principal Jacob Schutz] and [WES Principal Joelle Brookner and Assistant Principal Elea Kaatz]."
From a fiscal standpoint, the shared services agreement prevents each of the three schools from having to hire its own superintendent, business manager and director of pupil personnel services, who is responsible for special education programs.
In some ways, the Tri-District arrangement that already unites Mount Greylock with its two feeder elementary schools is a victim of its own success.
Mount Greylock's two member towns enjoy many of the financial and educational benefits of regionalization without a formal arrangement solidifying the partnership between the three schools.
But beneath the surface, the task of governing three separate school districts from a single central administration office has proved burdensome and, because of the duplication of paperwork, inefficient. And as the Williamstown-Lanesborough schools prepare for their second superintendent search in three years, school officials want to ask voters this November whether they want to tie the knot and end an "engagement" that began in 2010.
That was the year when Superintendency Union-71, a union of Lanesborough Elementary School and Williamstown Elementary School that formed in 2008, joined Mount Greylock in a shared services agreement.
"This was all done with a trajectory of regionalization," RDAC Chairwoman Carolyn Greene, a member of the Mount Greylock School Committee, said on Monday evening.
In fact, the first incarnation of the RDAC recommended regionalization after a yearlong study in 2013, but the School Committee put that proposal on the backburner in order to devote time and energy to the school building project.
Four years later, the second RDAC is charged with tasks like making sure the amended regional agreement is up to date and acceptable to officials in both towns, ironing out details like the lease agreements between the district and the towns to use the elementary school buildings, updating the financial analysis of the impact of expanded regionalization and informing the public ahead of the vote.
That community outreach effort is likely to encounter questions like those raised Monday by Williamstown resident Valerie Hall, who addressed the RDAC during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Hall, a former chairwoman of the Williamstown School Committee, questioned whether a regional expansion would be detrimental to funding decisions at WES. Hall cited consistent efforts the last few years by Lanesborough town officials who tried to rein in the Mount Greylock operating budget.
"I haven't heard addressed the reality of the budget difficulties that will happen, the budget difficulties that have happened at Mount Greylock," Hall said. "I think when you're working on the budget [projection] for the new region, you're assuming each will have its own budget and combining them. My opinion is that's not very likely. The new budget will not be the equivalent to the sum of the three current budgets. It will be lower, and what affect will that have on the elementary schools?"
Mount Greylock School Committee member and Lanesborough resident Chris Dodig blamed the media for creating the perception that officials in his town have held back the Mount Greylock budget.
"I'm not sure the headlines have accurately reflected what we went through at Mount Greylock," Dodig said. "Though people sometimes complain about our budget, we pretty much have gotten our budget. I don't remember having to compromise anything based on what the Lanesborough Board of Selectmen said."
Hall submitted a letter in advance of the meeting citing three articles from iBerkshires.com going back to 2011.
The 2011 article, from Lanesborough's town meeting, shows how the town voted to cut Mount Greylock's assessment by $30,000 from what the School Committee requested. That cut meant that the Williamstown assessment had to be reduced by $60,000, leaving the school short by about $90,000.
In 2013, the district asked Williamstown for $50,000 less money than the town paid the year before because, although Williamstown was raising outlays to the rest of the town's departments, the regional school district budget could only go up as much as both towns could support.
Still, Dodig maintained that the "noise" made "good headlines" but did not affect the Mount Greylock budget.
"Ultimately, we got what we as a School Committee wanted approved," Dodig said. "Some pushback on a budget is a good and necessary thing over time. The real drain on the Mount Greylock budget is the building project.
"The process hasn't always been pretty, as your headlines show, but that's been more bluster than an actual effect on the budget."
After the meeting, Greene concurred with Dodig that when the rubber hit the road, Lanesborough voters have supported Mount Greylock's budget needs.
"Budget scrutiny is good," said Greene, a resident of Williamstown. "We have the resources we need and use them responsibly."
One way to ensure some local control over the elementary school budget would be to create an alternative funding formula that would allow either town to fund specific line items over and above the assessments to each town. Currently, Mount Greylock assesses Lanesborough and Williamstown based on a five-year rolling average of resident student population at the Grades 7-12 school
WES Committee member Dan Caplinger encouraged the RDAC to look at alternatives to that method as a way of allaying concerns like those raised by Hall.
The same idea came up at last week's WES Committee meeting, where Caplinger himself noted there potential pitfalls.
"I see people like Valerie [Hall] saying that from an educational standpoint, they're comfortable with regionalization, but from a budget standpoint, when they look back to the history of how the two towns have worked together, that's where some of the fear comes in," Caplinger said. "The idea of this being a way to put that concern at ease is appealing.
"At the same time, I understand the concerns about equity. In some ways, it would be less than ideal to have a fully regionalized system where one component school has a different amount of funding."
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