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Lanesborough, Williamstown Voters Face School Regionalization Question Tuesday

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Tuesday's special town meetings in Lanesborough and Williamstown are the culmination of a process that began nearly a decade ago.
 
It was 2008 when Williamstown Elementary School and Lanesborough Elementary School joined together to form Superintendency Union 71 and share central administrative services. Two years later, SU71 joined forces with the junior-senior high school to which elementary students matriculate, Mount Greylock, creating the so-called "Tri-District" shared services agreement.
 
Back when those relationships were formed, they were seen as stepping stones on the path to fully regionalizing the North County school districts.
 
On Tuesday, voters in Mount Greylock's two member towns will have a chance to finish the process. Lanesborough holds its special town meeting at 6 p.m. and Williamstown at 7 p.m., both at their respective elementary schools. Both towns also have other, unrelated articles on their warrants. Child care will be available at both schools as well. 
 
At contemporaneous town meetings in each community, residents will be asked whether to consolidate the three schools of the Tri-District into a single, expanded Mount Greylock Regional School District. If they do so, the current practice of electing a separate school committee for each elementary school will be a thing of the past, and the budgets for both preK-6 schools will be incorporated into a single spending plan that voters will be asked to approve each spring at annual town meeting.
 
Other than those two changes, the operation of the schools will appear very much as it does now from the outside looking in. School committee members, who are driving Tuesday's proposal, point out that the schools already share a superintendent and have been doing so for nine years (in the case of the elementary schools) or seven years (in the case of Mount Greylock), depending on how you look at it.
 
The bigger change, school officials say, will be the increased efficiency that comes with full regionalization — efficiency that, among other things, will make it easier for the expanded district to hire a permanent superintendent and other administrative staff.
 
"This governance creates the structure in which our administration has to operate," WES Committee Chairman Joe Bergeron said recently of the Tri-District arrangement. "It's like being a CEO of three separate companies or if we shared the town manager with Lanesborough and New Ashford."
 
Bergeron and his counterpart on the LES Committee, Regina DiLego picked up the ball and ran with it last spring after the Mount Greylock School Committee decided that the regionalization effort should be led by the two elementary schools after years of study by the junior-senior high school district.
 
Along with other collaborators, DiLego and Bergeron developed the final proposed regional agreement that will be put to voters on Tuesday, including the critical elementary school funding piece that school officials hope satisfies concerns at the town level around the issue of local control.
 
They also have been at the heart of a public information effort to spread awareness of the regionalization issue in advance of the Nov. 14 special town meetings. Bergeron, DiLego and Mount Greylock School Committee Chairwoman Sheila Hebert filmed a 45-minute primer on the topic for community access television in the two towns. Bergeron has presented the plan to both the Williamstown Finance Committee, which unanimously voted to recommend voters' approval, and the Williamstown Board of Selectmen, which is scheduled to make its advisory vote on Monday, the night before town voters weigh in.
 
Bergeron made the "CEO" analogy during his presentation to the Williamstown Fin Comm, continuing:
 
"[The Tri-District superintendency] is not a desirable job among superintendents in Massachusetts. I haven't spoken to a past superintendent or a superintendent in another part of the state who thinks we have a desirable job for a superintendent to thrive in."
 
Bergeron said there are 275 licensed superintendents in the commonwealth, and the average tenure in a district is three years. Since Rose Ellis' retirement in 2014, the Tri-District has had two interim superintendents and one full-time superintendent whose stormy tenure of just more than a year ended abruptly amid criticism from school committee members and a letter of no-confidence signed by principals of all three schools.
 
"We're creating, in our corner of the state, a really challenging space to recruit and retain staff," Bergeron said. "It's not just the superintendent, but the business manager and special education director. It's across the board. We're not doing ourselves any kind of good service right now."
 
The Tri-District currently is led by interim Superintendent Kimberley Grady, whose former post as director of pupil personnel services is also being filled on an interim basis. The school committee members agreed to put off a search for a permanent superintendent until after the regionalization question is decided — leaving the door open for a dissolution of the complicated Tri-District structure and, potentially, a return to two or three superintendents if voters reject the idea of full regionalization.
 
No school leaders are expressing a preference for such a drastic step. All agree that the curriculum alignment and economies of scale created by the current collaboration between the three districts have benefited students and local taxpayers.
 
But the school committee members are just as unified in their assertion that the current mechanism for collaboration is cumbersome and not sustainable long term.
 
"We're trying to create a situation where we can have many of the benefits of collaboration while putting it in a manageable structure," Bergeron told the Williamstown BOS. "I think the best you can hope for is to have a balance [between collaboration and local control].
 
"For me, it comes down to: Do we have a better alternative? I don't think any structure we can propose would be perfect, but we've walked the line to find the best solution."
 
Below is some background on elements of the 14-page agreement voters will be asked to approve on Tuesday:
 
Section I  Type of School District
 
The one change here is semantic, changing the definition of the Mount Greylock Regional School District from a 7-12 district to a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade district.
 
Section II  Location of Regional District Schools
 
This specifies the schools that constitute the district and specifies the process by which an additional school could be built in the unlikely event one is needed.
 
It also addresses the question of how a school could be closed in the district, specifying that such a step would require a majority vote in each member town. In other words, if the voters of one town reject the school closure, the school will remain open.
 
It is tempting to think that this language was a reaction to last spring's elementary school closure in the neighboring Adams-Cheshire Regional School District, but in fact this was a feature of the proposed regional agreement that issued from Mount Greylock's 2013 Regional District Amendment Committee.
 
Mount Greylock formed a committee back then that spent a year studying the regionalization question from every angle, with particular attention to the educational impacts, and the district was close to putting the regionalization question to voters four years ago. But when, after numerous applications, Mount Greylock was invited into the Massachusetts School Building Authority's building program, the regional school committee decided it needed to focus its energy on the successful completion of that process and put regionalization on the back burner.
 
Section III  Lease of Schools in Member Towns
 
This is an entirely new section that deals with lease agreements between the district and the towns, which will continue to own the elementary school properties (the Mount Greylock Regional School District owns the junior-senior high school on Cold Spring Road in Williamstown).
 
This section was the last one modified, a modification that required a brief special meeting of the Mount Greylock School Committee to approve after the "final" agreement language was sent to the towns. The last-minute alteration, in response to a request from Lanesborough town officials, specifies that the elementary schools will continue to be available for use by the town for events, like town meetings, as long as priority is given to educational needs.
 
Section IV (formerly Section III in the current agreement)  Pupils
 
This section deals with who is eligible to attend the schools, namely children who reside in the two member towns, and adds language around out-of-town placement of special education programs.
 
Under the proposed agreement, moving a special ed program outside the town of the affected child would require a majority vote of the school committee.
 
Section V  The Regional School District School Committee
 
This section defines the composition of the regional school committee, which ultimately would look like the current Mount Greylock School Committee: seven members elected by voters from both towns with four members who reside in Williamstown and three members who reside in Lanesborough.
 
All seven positions would be up for election in November 2018, with staggered terms (four four-year terms and three two-year terms) in the first election and four-year terms for all seats after that.
 
In the meantime, the expanded district would be governed by a transition committee that includes four of the current Mount Greylock School Committee members (two residents of each town), two members of the current WES Committee and one member of the current LES Committee.
 
Section VI  Transportation
 
This is a new section required by the commonwealth to specify that regional school districts are required to provide transportation for students, something that all three districts in the Tri-District already are doing.
 
Section VII (formerly Section V)  Budget
 
It is fair to say that this section and the one that follows have generated the most discussion in the run-up to Tuesday's town meetings.
 
The text in Section VII tracks closely with the text of the current agreement with the notable exception of adding references to the School Council.
 
"Each such school building budget shall be prepared with the participation of a school council established as required by [Massachusetts General Law] c. 71 sec. 59C. The principal shall certify to the Superintendent that such school council is established as required by M.G.L. c.71, sec. 59C, that the council has participated in the preparation of the school building budget and that the budget is necessary and appropriate to implement the school improvement plan pursuant to M.G.L. c.71, sec. 38Q1/2 and any other applicable requirements."
 
The school council includes an equal number of faculty members and parents in a school and may include other community members. The parent representatives are elected by the school's Parent Teacher Organization while the teachers union appoints its representative. The school's principal serves as one of two co-chairs on the council.
 
As this section notes, the council is required by state law, but it is fair to say that at least one of the three Tri-District schools, WES, the council has had a low profile, to put it mildly. The reality on the ground in a single school district is that the elected school committee is the nexus of power, but in a region, school officials say, the school council would take on a greater role in advocating for the needs of its building.
 
Regionalization advocates say a more empowered school council addresses fears of losing "local control" over the elementary school budget, and the proposed regional agreement goes further than state law by requiring the principal to submit the budget to the superintendent and school committee.
 
"The school council is critical," interim Superintendent Grady told the Williamstown Board of Selectmen. "It will be working at each individual school, advocating for that school as they bring the budget forward. The local school committee goes away but then you have a robust school council at each school."
 
This fall, the Tri-District brought in a trainer from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees to educate members of the school councils at all three member schools about their role in school governance.
 
Section VIII — Apportionment and Payment of Costs Incurred by the District
 
This piece caused the longest delay in getting the blessing of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which ultimately must approve all regional district agreements in the commonwealth.
 
And it is the section that is most changed from the proposal that came out of the 2013 RDAC process, addressing local control questions that were raised four years ago, specifically the fear that one town's decisions could drive the elementary school budget in the other town.
 
That has been a particular concern in Williamstown, where some have pointed to recent struggles at Mount Greylock in getting a budget through the town committee process in Lanesborough. Some have questioned Lanesborough town officials' commitment to full collaboration with their partners to the north, pointing to efforts to scuttle SU71 as recently as 2014 by a member of the LES Committee and a 2015 bid by the Lanesborough Board of Selectmen to send the town's 7th- through 12th-graders to Hoosac Valley in an effort to save money.
 
School committee members from both towns maintain that while town officials sometimes have challenged the Lanesborough-Williamstown partnership, Lanesborough's voters have been strong in their support. They can point to the 2016 vote on the bond to pay for the addition/renovation project at Mount Greylock, which passed with 56 percent of the vote in Lanesborough, where nearly 50 percent of registered voters turned out.
 
The other concern expressed by Williamstown officials: incorporating the smaller Lanesborough Elementary School into a district budget that included all three schools would disproportionately impact Williamstown's tax bill. Why? Because a smaller school, like LES, has higher per-pupil cost than does WES because of fixed costs that both schools incur, like a principal. If you took all the operating costs for all three schools into one budget and simply divide them by number of students each town sends to the three schools, the per-pupil cost for Lanesborough taxpayers would go down and the per-pupil cost for Williamstown residents would go up.
 
To allay all those concerns, the school committees are recommending a funding mechanism in which each town will be assessed based on the operating cost of its elementary school, without regard to the cost of operating the school in the other town.
 
That is what caused regulators in Boston to take more time to consider the proposed Mount Greylock agreement. Ultimately, DESE signed off on the non-traditional funding mechanism, which is rare, but not entirely without precedent in the commonwealth.
 
In a more traditional regional funding scheme — like that currently used at Mount Greylock's junior-senior high school — towns are given an assessment based on the percentage of students it has in the system.
 
Costs for grades 7-12 would continue to be split that way under the proposed regional agreement. But costs for the elementary schools would be separated out. The town would receive one assessment, but that number would only reflect the operating cost for the elementary school in the town (along with what it's already paying for grades 7-12).
 
One last note about finances: 
 
The commonwealth, in an effort to encourage regional school districts, offers transportation subsidies to regional districts that are not available to single-school districts like Lanesborough and Williamstown. For the current fiscal year, that would have meant an additional $191,000 coming to the two towns from Boston. That is partly offset by a projected $70,000 cost that will come from aligning union contracts at the three schools.
 
Regionalization proponents recognize the potential $121,000 windfall, but they are not emphasizing it. They also note that current shared services, which would be made permanent under full regionalization, save the towns a combined $400,000 per year, and those savings could go away if the Tri-District goes away without regionalization.
 
But the thrust of their argument is not finances.
 
"The reason to vote in favor of this is better governance and the administration," Bergeron said. "We will be able realize savings in the future, and all of our students will benefit from the ability to better manage the schools."
 
Section IX  Incurring of Debt
Section X  Admission of Additional Towns to the District
 
Neither of these sections are changed from the current regional agreement.
 
Section XI  Withdrawal
 
This section has new language required by the state to clarify how payment of Other Postemployment Benefits would be handled in the event of either town's withdrawal from the district.
 
Section XII  Amendments
 
This section is not changed.
 
Section XIII  Retiree Costs
 
This new section was required by the state to specify how retiree costs at the current elementary schools would be handled if those schools are added to the Mount Greylock district.

Tags: LES,   MGRHS,   regionalization,   special town meeting,   WES,   

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