The School Committee on Thursday voted to continue talks with Stamford and use the $25,000 obtained by the late state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi toward a feasibility study.
CLARKSBURG, Mass. — Six months after her death, state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi continues to fulfill promises to her constituents.
Superintendent Jon Lev was informed just hours before Thursday's meeting that $25,000 was available to pursue research on merging or aligning with Stamford School.
With that information, the School Committee formally voted to continue discussions and to use the $25,000 toward a study of a possible merger with the Vermont school.
Both school committees had thought the talks begun last year would be stalled for lack of funding after Cariddi, who had supported the initiative, died last June. But prior to that, she'd tucked the $25,000 into the state's $39 million budget for fiscal 2019.
"She had told us at one of our meetings that she was going to try to get us some money through the legislative budget to help us try and come up with an agreement," Lev said. "After she passed away ... we never heard anything and just figured we needed to start over again."
Instead of starting over, thanks to Cariddi, the Massachusetts town is now looking at Vermont for some matching funds to begin the process.
The idea of merging has been pushed forward by changes in educational laws in Vermont, better known as Act 46, which calls for small school districts to begin forming unions to enhance education and save money through collaboration. The concept is not unlike that proposed by the Berkshire County Education Task Force that is encouraging school districts to collaborate but with the goal of creating a "super district" to deal with declining enrollment and rising costs.
For Stamford, however, the union option would force it to collaborate and create a new governmental structure with school districts to the north, including Halifax some 25 miles away over winding roads. That didn't makes sense, say school officials, for a district that faces south and sends almost all its students to Massachusetts high schools.
Last year, Stamford voters rejected the proposed union in favor of looking into the viability of an interstate school district. Clarksburg Select Board Chairman Jeffrey Levanos and Town Administrator Carl McKinney made the proposal at an informational meeting in Stamford and an ad hoc committee was formed in Stamford to look at options and pursue legislative support.
Kimberly Roberts-Morandi, a member of the ad hoc committee and also an administrator in the North Adams Public Schools, said the next step would be for Clarksburg to request to engage in a study of what it would be like for these two towns to come together "so we can maintain the integrity of small town schools."
The study will look at options for cooperation and governance and also the legal issues that may arise.
"In order for Vermont to move forward, they need Massachusetts to actually initiate," she said. The group had meet with its three state delegates in December — state Sens. Philip Baruth and Brian Campion, and state Rep. Laura Sibilia — all of whom backed the idea and with Lev and Clarksburg Town Administrator Carl McKinney. Lev said he had also spoken with Cariddi's successor, state Rep. John Barrett III to update him on the progress.
"[McKinney] needs permission from the town to send a letter to the state that says we intend to move forward with a study, or we're requesting permission to move forward with a study," Roberts-Morandi said, adding McKinney should have received an email with the process set out. "The day that he says that letter has been submitted, Vermont already moves forward with another step, too."
Stamford's legislators have informed the Vermont General Assembly that they will be requesting to study an interstate agreement between the two towns specifically. The ad hoc group and Stamford school directors prepared a report (also given to Clarksburg) on how joining Clarksburg would fulfill the requirements of Act 46. It was possible, they said, that they could go to Montpelier to testify before the Senate Committee on Education, of which Baruth is chair.
"It would also have to be an act of Congress that will sanction it as well, so we know it will take time," Cynthia Lamore, chairman of the Stamford Board of School Directors, said. But, she added, "it is inevitably up to the people."
Lamore thought the option to cooperate would help keep both schools open, citing the possibility of utilizing both schools for space, and blending curriculums to ensure Stamford students are prepared the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests in high school.
School Committee member John Solari seemed to flummox the Stamford contingent when he asked why not just join the Northern Berkshire School Union?
The school union is comprised of five school districts — Clarksburg, Florida, Monroe, Rowe, and Savoy — that share a superintendent, business manager and special education. Such a scenario would not change the governance or organization of Stamford School since each school district functions separately and representatives to the superintendency committee are selected by each board.
"I don't think we even thought that was a possibility," Lamore said. Their model has been an existing Vermont/New Hampshire interstate school district.
"I think this is why we need the money to look at all the different possibilities and what would work the best for both towns," Lev said. "I think this is why we need a consultant ... what's going to work for Vermont, what's going to work for Clarksburg. ... There may not be any choices."
The school officials also addressed the special town meeting held the last week in December during which an article about negotiating an agreement was tabled. Lev said did not think its rejection would set the talks back in any way.
School Committee Chairwoman Patricia Prengruber said the problem was not with having an article but rather the way it was written, which seemed to indicate an agreement was at hand and that it would be totally between the towns, not the school districts. School officials said they were not informed that the article would be on the warrant.
"There's so many questions we have and so many hoops to jump through, and all sorts things," Prengruber said. "I'd like to take my time. I'd like to be aware of what's going on."
Lev agreed, saying both school districts should be listening to staff, parents and residents to ensure any decision would be good for the students and the schools.
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