NEW ASHFORD, Mass. — The School Committee on Thursday morning voted 2-1 to accept a three-year phased-in tuition agreement for elementary school pupils negotiated with representatives from the Mount Greylock Regional School District.
Superintendent Peter Dillon and School Committee Chairwoman Brenda Frye reported that they negotiated Wednesday morning with Mount Greylock interim Superintendent Kimberley Grady and Transition Committee member Chris Dodig to find a compromise that will meet the district's aim of raising tuition to match the per-pupil rate for Lanesborough Elementary School as published by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
As agreed to Wednesday and blessed by the School Committee 24 hours later, the town would pay $12,477 per pupil in fiscal 2019, $14,442 in FY20 and the full DESE per-pupil rate, whatever it may be at that time, in FY21.
The district, building on a policy set by the Lanesborough School Committee last spring, earlier this year voted twice to charge New Ashford $17,314 per pupil, the current rate as reported by DESE. New Ashford pays the district $8,977 per pupil in FY18.
After taking considerable public comment both for and against continuing at Lanesborough Elementary, the New Ashford School Committee on Thursday voted to approve the phased-in tuition increase, subject to approval by the full Transition Committee, which governs the recently expanded Mount Greylock district until November, when a new school committee is elected by voters in Lanesborough and Williamstown.
Frye and Jennifer Welch voted to accept the phased-in agreement, which Dillon and Frye characterized as the best the town was going to get from the district. Committee member Lori Jayko voted against accepting the agreement.
In a subsequent vote, the committee decided unanimously to send the May 15 annual town meeting a school budget of $592,018, $84,000 higher than the FY18 budget after the increase at Lanesborough and a previously negotiated increase at Mount Greylock Regional School are taken into account. The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee had a five-year contract in place with its sending towns, including New Ashford, for the middle-high school that was set to end in FY19; the Transition Committee, which assumed control of all decisions that impact the district after June 30, chose to honor the previously agreed to increase for students in Grades 7 through 12.
Two members of the three-person New Ashford Select Board, which did not have a meeting warned and did not gavel in a meeting, addressed the School Committee during Thursday's 9 a.m. session.
A town resident asked the School Committee what it would cost to send its elementary school pupils to Hancock and how a Hancock education compares with one at Lanesborough Elementary.
School officials responded that while Hancock is offering the town a rate of about $10,000 per pupil, the total bill would be about the same as Lanesborough's in the first year because Hancock's school does not offer, among other things, the school nurse that New Ashford's student population would need, and the town would end up paying above the per-pupil rate to add such a service.
Dillon said there would be "incremental" savings to the town in FY20 and "larger" savings in the third year of the agreement if it went with Hancock.
As for the quality of education, Dillon, who serves as superintendent in New Ashford and Hancock under the umbrella of the Shaker Mountain Superintendency Union No. 70, said there are advantages and disadvantages to both Hancock and Lanesborough.
"With its size, [Hancock] is not as diverse," Dillon said. "The breadth of offerings is not as wide as what's going to be at Lanesborough. The difference is in some grades, they're combined grades.
"The upside of a school like Hancock is really personal attention. … They have a neat garden and do work in science. They don't have the same options around music.
"There's a strong sense of community and peer mentoring [at Hancock]. … On the other hand, if someone is used to a wider range of offerings at Lanesborough, particularly in music, they may feel it's not the same."
In the end, Dillon said, it came down to individual needs.
"The bigger challenge is what's the right match for a particular kid," he said. "It's harder for me to say that. It's more about the kid and the parent."
One New Ashford parent who addressed the School Committee from the floor said there was no question about the right choice for her family.
"My children are very happy at Lanesborough," Michelle Filiault said. "That's all they know. To move them to Hancock would be devastating.
"My daughter is in drama. She's in chorus. She's a music student playing clarinet. She plays sports. This is her community. This is all she knows. I've been to Hancock. It's a sweet little school. It's not what my child is used to."
The town cannot make an apples-to-apples comparison on things like standardized test scores. Dillon explained that for very small schools, like Hancock, DESE does not publish MCAS results because they are not statistically significant and individual students could be easily identified.
That said, Hancock and Lanesborough pupils both matriculate to Mount Greylock in the seventh grade, and there is no indication that children from either are unprepared for the Level 1 middle-high school.
Ultimately, it is town meeting's decision whether it wants to support a budget based on enrollment at Lanesborough and Mount Greylock or whether it wants the town to find a less expensive alternative.
Welch noted that a town like New Ashford is always going to be in a difficult position when it comes to negotiating tuition rates.
"Twenty years ago, we couldn't have predicted we'd be in this situation with Lanesborough," she said. "There's no guarantee in Hancock the tuition rate is going to stay the same. If people around the state are starting to follow the precedent of using the DESE rate … Hancock's per-pupil rate is not that different from what's being offered by Mount Greylock."
Often, receiving districts offer tuition rates lower than their own per-pupil cost as a way to fill empty seats in classrooms, Dillon said. The operating principle there is that the marginal cost of an additional child is far below the revenue received per child, even if the revenue does not equal what might be received at a higher tuition rate.
Under pressure from town officials to make sure the sending towns is paying its "fair share," the Lanesborough Elementary School Committee last year decided to set a policy that yoked its tuition to the DESE-published per-pupil rate.
An earlier version of this story may have incorrectly attributed a question regarding the cost of tuition at Hancock Elementary School.
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