WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After years of study and conversation about expanding the Mount Greylock Regional School District, the marathon effort is in a sprint to the finish.
On Wednesday, the Williamstown Elementary School Committee discussed how it plans to gather any last-minute input from the community and educate any voters who need more information ahead of a planned Nov. 14 special town meeting to decide whether to amend Mount Greylock's regional agreement to incorporate Williamstown and Lanesborough elementary schools into what would become a pre-K through Grade 12 school district.
In addition to a special page on the website of the current Tri-District where visitors can read background material and pose questions, the WES Committee Wednesday planned two special outreach sessions: Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. in the school's cafeteria and Oct. 19 at 6 p.m. in the library. It discussed at least one other outreach session on a Saturday prior to Nov. 14.
The Oct. 12 date will be the last time the elementary school panel meets before the pivotal Oct. 17 meeting of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee. Oct. 17 is the night when the Mount Greylock committee plans to vote on final language for the town meeting warrant request it will send to both Lanesborough and Williamstown, whose Boards of Selectmen must set the warrant in time to post it for Nov. 14.
The last meeting of the Williamstown Selectmen before the posting deadline for a Nov. 14 special town meeting is Oct. 23.
Since town officials are planning simultaneous special town meetings on the night of Nov. 14, floor amendments at either would be problematic. Unless both towns pass the exact same language, the effort to expand the region likely would have to wait until at least spring 2018. That means another fiscal year operating under the complicated, inefficient Tri-District model which officials say strains both administrators and volunteer committee members.
In other words, the clock is ticking, and as the Williamstown School Committee met this past Wednesday night, there were about 13 days left to reach a consensus.
"Honestly, that's my biggest fear right now, time," said School Committee Chairman Joe Bergeron, who has been helping to spearhead the effort to craft amendment language that will be acceptable to both towns.
At issue for many in Williamstown is the idea of giving up local control over the pre-K-through-6 school.
Bergeron and his counterpart on the Lanesborough School Committee, in consultation with town leaders and stakeholders, developed a proposal under which the operating budget for each elementary school will be assessed separately to each town. It is not typical for regional school districts but it is not unprecedented in the commonwealth and has the preliminary approval of officials at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which ultimately would approve any amendment passed by town meeting.
One measure of local control that has been in place in regional expansion discussions since the conclusion of Mount Greylock's 2013 ad hoc Regional District Amendment Committee: a provision that neither town's elementary school could be closed or consolidated without the approval of both towns.
"This regional agreement makes it clear there are no plans and it will not happen that any elementary school will be closed as part of this [proposal]," Bergeron said. "In order for any consolidation to happen at any point in the future, both towns would have to vote in favor of that."
Bergeron has been funneling preliminary amendment language to Boston to see what should and should not be incorporated into the proposal. That process includes suggestions from a member of the Williamstown BOS who this week expressed the belief that school officials' most recent draft does not go far enough to ensure local control.
Bergeron on Wednesday reported back to his committee the reaction of the Williamstown Selectmen, which he said was generally positive but also included the suggestions like one that would require separate elementary school budget votes by residents of each town serving on the Mount Greylock School Committee.
"First, there's a vote on the LES portion of the budget where at least two-thirds of the Lanesborough residents on the committee will need to support it," Bergeron said. "The second hurdle is at least two-thirds of the Williamstown residents [on the committee] would need to vote in favor of the WES portion. Then for the Mount Greylock budget, two-thirds of the committee would need to approve … Then there is a final two-thirds vote for the whole district budget."
By state law, the regional district would send one bottom line number to each town to approve at the annual town meeting. Town officials could include in the warrant language explaining how much goes to the elementary school and how much goes to the junior-senior high school, but the actual vote would be up or down on a bottom line assessment for pre-K-through-12 education.
The initial take from members of the Williamstown School Committee was that the multi-step voting approach to passing a school budget at the district level would be both convoluted and divisive.
"Splitting up the votes into four different votes seems onerous to me," Cathy Keating said. "I'm curious if the other districts that have the kind of budget we are looking at do it that way.
"To me it seems a bit divisive. We're trying to form a regional school committee. Why would we break up into our own towns to vote?"
"I agree with that," Dan Caplinger continued. "They're not Lanesborough or Williamstown representatives on the Mount Greylock committee. They are residents of towns that voters in both towns vote for."
Per the regional agreement, the Mount Greylock School Committee includes four residents of Williamstown, the larger of the towns in the two-town district, and three from Lanesborough. Names for all seven positions appear on November ballots in both towns.
"In my experience, the Mount Greylock School Committee members very quickly divorce themselves from the idea that they're partisan to one town or the other," Caplinger said. "I think there's a perception that the residents on the school committee are going to automatically make decisions based on their residence. That's where you run into the problems we've seen elsewhere in the county.
"Doing everything we can to avoid that situation seems to me the best approach."
Joe Johnson noted that local control is achieved in the development of a regional district budget, when Mount Greylock officials present the budget in public hearings in each town and before each town's Finance Committee.
"We're all working on the same project," Johnson said. "We're all sending our kids to the same school. If we have one committee working to keep the quality high at all three schools, it seems to me a lot of the partisan infighting vibe would disappear.
"In terms of local control, when we have changed budget numbers or when the superintendent tried to stay in a certain percentage [budget increase] at the suggestion of the town manager … the school committee looked at that budget and said, 'We don't like that.' We went to the Williamstown Finance Committee and said, 'As stewards of the school, we don't think that will work.' All of that happened well before it went to town meeting. The real meaningful discussions happen between town officials and elected school officials."
Bergeron said he understands the concern about potential divisiveness of separate votes without the regional school committee.
"I know I've heard and appreciate the idea from Mount Greylock School Committees past and present that you have to be careful not to draw lines in the regional school committee across town lines," he said. "Of course, there's tension there between local control and regional school committee harmony and collaboration."
Bergeron also explained a suggestion from Williamstown Selectman Andrew Hogeland that was not fully discussed at Monday's board meeting: that the amendment include language requiring the Mount Greylock School Committee to hold off on its budget process until it has taken into account the draft budget generated by each school's School Council.
"That's stronger than the state minimum, which is that the principal and School Council have the right to review and advise," Bergeron said. "[Hogeland's] language is consistent with how we've thought about the day-to-day practice would work."
School Councils, which have had a lesser role at WES given the fact that the school has a five-member school committee dedicated solely to the building, are led by a school's principal and include parents, staff members and members of the community at large.
They would have an increased role in an expanded school district where one elected school committee has responsibility for three buildings. And Interim Tri-District Superintendent Kimberley Grady has arranged an Oct. 10 training session for School Council members from all three schools with a representative from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
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