School Committee members Joe Bergeron and Cathy Keating participate in Wednesday's meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown School Committee on Wednesday endorsed the continuation of a conversation in Williamstown and Lanesborough about expanding Mount Greylock Regional School District to include its "feeder" elementary schools.
In a 5-0 vote, the panel voted to signal the Mount Greylock School Committee that it wants to meet jointly with the the junior-senior high school committee at its Sept. 19 meeting and that the elementary school committee wants to continue to seek community input ahead of a hoped-for November special town meeting in each of Mount Greylock's member towns.
While declining to go so far as to make an advisory vote to town meeting about the current draft amendment to the regional agreement, the WES Committee members indicated that the funding mechanism developed this summer is an acceptable means of maintaining local control over K-6 education in each town.
"My comment would be that the objections I have heard from the community about regionalization, to my mind, all have been addressed by the proposed agreement," committee member Joe Johnson said. "I can't think of anything someone has brought up that doesn't go 'poof' with this."
One of the main sticking points raised by residents in both towns is the issue of "local control," and a fear of ceding control of the K-6 budget to a regional school district committee. The seven-member Mount Greylock School Committee includes four members who are residents of Williamstown and three who are residents of Lanesborough; all seven are elected by a majority of voters in the entire district.
After the Mount Greylock School Committee earlier this year asked the elementary school committees to take the lead on the regionalization question, the chairmen of the two town school committees, Joe Bergeron (Williamstown) and Regina DiLego (Lanesborough), working with stakeholders in both towns, crafted an amendment that would keep each town's elementary school budget independent.
Following a model used in a few other similar regional school districts, Lanesborough and Williamstown each essentially would receive an assessment from the Mount Greylock Regional School District for the operational costs of their respective elementary schools. The cost of the shared junior-senior high school would continue to be split per the existing formula, which is based on student population.
Dan Caplinger, who as a member of the Williamstown School Committee in 2013 served on Mount Greylock's ad hoc Regional District Amendment Committee, said the current proposed amendment solves an issue that prevented him from supporting a regionalization vote four years ago.
"The other aspect of it that I don't think we quite got to in 2013 was additional research in trying to find ways to apportion the elementary school budget," Caplinger said. "That fact motivated my negative vote on that [RDAC] committee. I share Joe Johnson's comments that the 2013 committee served a purpose of showing we're interested in the process, identifying some lingering issues.
"And now we've addressed those issues and come up with, in my mind, a better solution that preserves the educational gains."
Some of those gains — like aligning curricula between the feeder schools and sharing professional development programs among the staff — have been achieved under the current Tri-District arrangement under which Mount Greylock shares a central administration with the two schools, who operate together under their Superintendency Union-71 agreement.
There also have been financial advantages to both towns of sharing their superintendent, business manager and director of pupil personnel services.
All those gains would be solidified in an expanded region. As it stands now, any of the three schools could pull out of the existing shared services agreement.
And the inefficiencies of having the Tri-District office deal with three different elected school committees and three separate district reports to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education creates an unnecessary burden that could be alleviated in a full K-12 district, regionalization advocates argue.
That is one reason the Tri-District currently has been operating under an interim superintendent since last fall. The Mount Greylock and SU71 committees decided to hold off on searching for a full-time superintendent until after the regionalization question is settled — keeping the door open for two or three separate superintendent searches if the towns decide not to fully regionalize. As far back as 2013, the first Tri-District superintendent, Rose Ellis, warned school committees that it would be difficult to attract qualified superintendent candidates to take the helm of the complicated three-district structure.
Mount Greylock back-burnered the regionalization question in 2013 after the district was invited to participate in the Massachusetts School Building Authority's program. With the renovated Mount Greylock set to open this spring, the Mount Greylock School Committee revived its RDAC earlier this year. But this summer, it put the RDAC on hiatus and asked the elementary school committees to lead the conversation in each town.
Bergeron said Wednesday that the draft amendment he circulated to the members of his committee has been vetted by the district's legal counsel and staff at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
"Counsel has been weighing in every step of the way so we're not spinning our wheels to develop something that counsel and DESE say no to," interim Superintendent Kimberley Grady said.
Bergeron also noted that the concept of expanding the Mount Greylock district to include the two elementary schools should not be confused or conflated with the broader question of countywide regionalization as envisioned by the Berkshire County Education Task Force.
"With no disrespect intended to the task force, there is nothing about the current regionalization topic that is truly related to the task force's input," Bergeron said. "What we're talking about in terms of our own little regionalization with Lanesborough … to me, I don't think of this as a first step. This is something that is potentially mutually beneficial for our towns separate from what happens in the county — which I do care about, but that's not what's before us now."
Caplinger, who serves on the BCETF, said a K-12 region to unite the two towns would dovetail with the kind of shared-services arrangements discussed by the task force.
"I think probably the most important point for us in the short term is that the task force encourages the efforts that districts like ours are making toward collaborations that are much smaller in scope than a single countywide district," Caplinger said. "There is nothing in the recommendation of the task force that seeks to discourage that. One thing that members of the task force have made clear is that a countywide region is an aspirational goal, and it will take bite-sized goals to make it happen."
The WES Committee on Wednesday discussed several dates when it and its colleagues from the Lanesborough and Mount Greylock committees can meet with Williamstown residents to explain the expanded region proposal and take feedback. Principal Joelle Brookner offered to put the subject on the agenda for a Sept. 20 all-staff meeting at the school. Grady said the committees could have tables at each of the Tri-District schools' regularly scheduled year-opening open houses. Bergeron asked for his colleagues' permission to update the Williamstown Board of Selectmen at its Sept. 11 meeting and floated the idea of more listening sessions for the school committee throughout October.
In the short term, the School Committee decided to post meetings for the body to coincide with the scheduled meetings of the Lanesborough committee on Sept. 14 and the Mount Greylock School Committee on Sept. 19.
Two of the Williamstown residents who serve on the Mount Greylock School Committee, Wendy Penner and Steven Miller, attended Wednesday's meeting in the audience.
Miller addressed the committee during its public comment period.
"I have not publicly supported any regionalization plan in the past, as the devil is in the details," Miller said, emphasizing that he was speaking as an individual and not a representative of the Mount Greylock School Committee. "Any proposal must be advantageous, or at least neutral, to each town. As a result of the enormous amount of hard work by many in both communities, the current document is a win-win for both our towns. I am happy to strongly endorse it and encourage others to do so as well."
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