Williamstown School Committee Chairman Joe Bergeron explains the funding mechanism for elementary schools in the new proposal for an expanded Mount Greylock Regional School District.
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — The latest proposal to expand the Mount Greylock Regional School District would allow each member town to control the budget of its elementary school.
The elementary school committees from Williamstown and Lanesborough met Tuesday to review a draft regional agreement that would expand Mount Greylock Regional School District to include both its "feeder" schools.
Both Mount Greylock's member towns have agreed to Nov. 14 as the potential date for twin special town meetings to approve the regional expansion, an idea that has been under discussion for years at the junior-senior high school, which did a yearlong study of the issue in 2013.
Earlier this year, the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee decided to let the elementary school committees take the lead on finalizing a proposed amendment to the agreement that created the junior-senior high school district in 1958.
Williamstown School Committee Chairman Joe Bergeron and Lanesborough School Committee Chairwoman Regina DiLego presented their colleagues with a proposal they believe accomplishes the goals of expanded regionalization while addressing some of the concerns raised during Mount Greylock's recent second incarnation of its Regional District Amendment Committee.
The objective remains the same: preserving the fiscal and educational advantages achieved by the current shared services agreements under which Mount Greylock shares a central administration costs with the elementary schools, which operate as Superintendency Union 71.
The chief objections that emerged this year when Mount Greylock was leading the conversation centered on the question of local control. Bergeron said the current draft of the agreement offers the best of both worlds: a unified district that still allows each town to control funding for its elementary school.
"The traditional regional school district structure that is most common is to split the budget based on the pupil ratio," Bergeron said. "That works especially well when you have a set of schools that serve students from numerous member towns. Then it's all mixed together already, and the only fair way to do it is to say: However many students you have, you pay based on that.
"In our structure, each town wants to keep its elementary school."
And each town ultimately would pay for its elementary school, under an agreement that would apportion the Mount Greylock share of the budget as it currently is split and give each town a K-6 assessment based on the operating budget for its school.
Bergeron said the locally controlled costs for elementary schools model has been used in other regional districts in the commonwealth, and officials at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have given their preliminary approval to implementing the funding mechanism at an expanded Mount Greylock.
"It is something that addresses concerns people have had in that it snips that cord between the elementary schools," he said. "It makes it so you don't have the two towns reaching into each others' elementary school budgets because they don't need to."
Despite perceptions that Williamstown and Lanesborough residents have different approaches to funding education, the reality is that the towns' elementary schools are not dissimilar, Bergeron said.
"Our two elementary schools, by most metrics, are the top two elementary schools in the county," he said. "We're already using the same curriculum material. In theory, the schools could diverge … but the [Mount Greylock] School Committee would ultimately have control over that."
The three schools' teachers, paraprofessionals and other union personnel would negotiate contracts for personnel in all three buildings with the newly configured Mount Greylock Regional School Committee, so a big part of the cost of education will be the same at both elementary schools. The "local control" would come into play at the margins of the budget.
The budgets for all three schools would be developed and reviewed by each school's School Council — a volunteer committee that would achieve new prominence under the expanded regional structure.
"The places we're likely to diverge are if Lanesborough has a program it really wants that's extracurricular and so does Williamstown, rather than [the School Committee] saying, Lanesborough's costs $9,000 and Williamstown's costs $11,000, it's not fair that we're giving $2,000 more to Williamstown," Bergeron said.
Or, as Lanesborough School Committee member P.J. Pannesco put it, "If the Lanesborough School Council said, we want to put gold-plated desks in each room, that has no effect on Williamstown."
Besides the local control of elementary school budgets, other concerns officials have heard from voters include a fear that Mount Greylock will "take over" the elementary schools and worries that the school district could decide to close one of the two elementaries.
Bergeron said the former concern is addressed by the draft amendment's outline for a transition to the new governance structure. If expanded regionalization passes on Nov. 14, the current Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Nov. 15 will form a transitional committee composed of four members from the Mount Greylock (two residents from each town), two members from the Williamstown School Committee and one member from the Lanesborough committee.
The two elementary school committees would be disbanded on July 1, 2018, and all seven seats on the Mount Greylock School Committee would be on the ballot in November 2018 (with staggered terms).
The latter concern, school closure, was exacerbated after the neighboring Adams-Cheshire Regional School District closed Cheshire Elementary School in the spring. But Mount Greylock's draft amendment from 2013 anticipated that issue with language that prohibited closure of either elementary school without an affirmative vote from the residents of both towns.
That language was carried over into the draft Bergeron and DiLego presented on Tuesday.
"If Lanesborough Elementary School ever was to close, it would be because Lanesborough decided to close it," Pannesco said.
Bergeron on Tuesday also addressed another concern not specific to the language in the regional agreement. Whenever school districts join into a region, there is an impact on teachers' contracts, which must be aligned without negatively impacting employees.
Critics of regionalization have argued that aligning the contracts will cost more money than the schools save by joining under one district. But Bergeron said Tuesday that those costs would be offset by a state incentive for regional districts.
"The [Framingham-based] Abrahams Group estimated that the overall budget impact [of contract alignment] would be $70,000 the school district would be spending in year one," he said. "That's more than offset by the state's regional transportation aid. Bringing WES and LES in … in FY16 would have brought $192,000 more.
"People would argue that you can't count on that because the rate of reimbursement varies … but that $190,000 won't drop to $20,000. We can reasonably expect to come out a little better financially than in the prior year."
Neither elementary school committee Tuesday voted on the draft amendment, but each may take up the issue in special meetings planned for next Wednesday. Bergeron said the likely path from there will be to take the proposal to the Mount Greylock School Committee, which will make a formal request to each town's Board of Selectmen to put a warrant article before the special town meeting.
Between now and Nov. 14, Bergeron and DiLego said school committee members from all three schools will educate town officials and voters about the issue.
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