WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Tuesday echoed the school committees at its feeder elementary schools by endorsing a plan to fully regionalize the district while maintaining local control of the elementary schools in Lanesborough and Williamstown.
Like the committees at Lanesborough Elementary and Williamstown Elementary, the Mount Greylock School Committee voted unanimously to move forward with the plan, which would partition K-6 funding apart from the shared operating expenses at the junior-senior high school and see each town pay for its own elementary school.
"As the working group members from the elementary school committees and people from both towns met to discuss options and concerns about the loss of local control … the degree to which elementary schools could drive the 'other' town's budget, the working group came to see a solution that makes sense," WES Committee Chairman Joe Bergeron told the Mount Greylock panel.
"We are two towns not planning to consolidate our elementary schools any time soon. That gives us options around separating the two budgets. The two schools have their own traditions and their own sizes. … We proposed an apportionment of operating expenses approach that would mimic how things work right now: Each town pays for the operating expenses for the school in its town and a the portion of the Mount Greylock population it sends."
Bergeron noted that there are still details to work out with what will technically be an amendment to the 1960 1958 Mount Greylock Regional School Agreement. But school officials are optimistic that they can iron out those details in time to present a warrant article to the towns by Oct. 23, the deadline to set a Nov. 14 special town meeting in each town.
One member of the Mount Greylock School Committee raised questions Tuesday about the funding formula included in the proposed regional agreement. Chris Dodig sought explanations from Bergeron and Mount Greylock SC member Steven Miller, who worked on the ad hoc group that developed the new regionalization proposal over the summer.
Dodig noted that when the district's Regional District Amendment Committee first ran the numbers to assess the financial impact of full regionalization, Lanesborough's share of the expanded K-12 region's operating cost would have represented a net savings of $480,000 from the town's current assessments from LES and Mount Greylock, and Williamstown's share of the expanded region would have increased by $360,000 over it's current education expenditure.
In the new model, in which each town pays for its own school, the overall local cost of operating Mount Greylock's K-12 region would drop by $120,000, according to projections, but that cost savings would be split between the two towns, Dodig said, and he wanted to know why.
Bergeron said the $120,000 net savings between the two towns is the same in either scenario because that comes from the anticipated regional transportation aid from the commonwealth minus the estimated $70,000 it will take to bring union contracts at the three schools into alignment.
The reason why Lanesborough paid less and Williamstown more in the prior iteration is that the per pupil cost of a LES education is higher than the per pupil cost at WES because of their relative pupil populations, Bergeron said.
"When you lump them together, you end up with Williamstown paying for a portion of the higher per pupil cost in Lanesborough," he said. "That speaks to the differences in the sizes of the two schools. Every administrator, every teacher who is not a classroom teacher [i.e. specialists, interventionists, etc.] is spread over fewer students at Lanesborough."
While full regionalization will make Lanesborough's and Williamstown's elementary schools eligible for state transportation aid that will lower the property tax hit to each town, proponents of an expanded region have never sold the idea by touting new cost savings. Rather, the arguments for regionalization, going back to the 2013 incarnation of RDAC include that it would: preserve cost savings already achieved in the current shared services agreement for central administration, benefit students at all three schools by continuing to align curricula and open opportunities for shared professional development among staff at the three schools.
Dodig also questioned the proposed amendment's plan for distributing Chapter 70 aid from the state.
Miller, a Williams College mathematics professor who helped develop the formula for that distribution, prepared handout explaining the math behind it.
The problem, Miller explained, is that currently, each school receives its own Chapter 70 funds from the commonwealth. If the regional district was expanded, Mount Greylock would get one disbursement from the state, and if each town is paying for its own elementary school, it would be up to the district to apportion the state grant.
Miller created a formula to allocate funds based on each school's enrollment and the equalized valuations (relative property values) in each town. He then compared the last 10 years of real numbers for Chapter 70 aid to what the model would have predicted in each year and found that the actual and predicted numbers tracked very closely.
For the current fiscal 2018, for example, the model predicted that the "pot" would have been split 21.78 percent for LES, 27.84 percent for WES and 50.38 percent for Mount Greylock. In actuality, of all the Chapter 70 aid coming from Boston for the current fiscal year, 22.02 went to LES, 27.88 went to WES And 50.10 went to Mount Greylock.
"[In] 2018, the Chapter 70 funds come to $3,489,437 [for all three districts]," Miller wrote. "One percent of that is approximately $35,000, while .3 percent is about $10,500."
"One of the nice things about linear regression is it's extremely transparent," Miller said Tuesday of the mathematical method he used. "Why use student population and EQV [equalized value]? We're trying to estimate how the state calculates Chapter 70 aid. We wanted to have a similar model that's easy to understand and does a good job. It tracks well over the last decade."
Dodig said he wanted to continue to take some time to understand the formula and ask questions after the meeting.
Bergeron said he would be happy to entertain more questions from the committee members and noted that the working group continues to welcome input from the public, including at upcoming outreach sessions at the elementary schools' open houses and a Sept. 28 evening workshop on childhood anxiety at Mount Greylock.
Interim Superintendent Kimberley Grady said she also has to have more conversations about the proposed language with the district's counsel and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, both of whom have signaled their approval of the broad outlines.
Bergeron pushed for a special joint meeting of all three school committees to try to finalize the language, saying the three should find a date to post an open meeting that would attract as many members of each panel as possible.
"Getting a quorum all the time is tough, but figuring out how we can get as many of us in the room at a time is important,' Bergeron said.
Although Dodig asked specific questions about the formula, which is a key component of the amendment, the Mount Greylock committee members were largely supportive of the efforts of Bergeron's group.
"I think this is a textbook example of what happens when reasonable and informed people sit down and work solutions," Al Terranova said. "I think it's great we have a really good group of problem solvers. I'm going to vote yes on regionalization. I think it's the best thing to happen to the towns."
Terranova's colleague Carolyn Greene, the one-time chair of the district's Regional District Amendment Committee formed to explore regionalization, agreed.
"I feel good about supporting the document," Greene said. "Thank you to Joe [Bergeron] and Regina [DiLego] and everyone who worked on this. … I think it's a great proposal, and I'm appreciative of all the effort."
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