STAMFORD, Vt. — The towns of Stamford and Clarksburg, Mass., hope to have their questions about a merged school district answered by May.
Representatives from Public Consulting Group, hired to crunch data, research educational, governance and legislative factors, and lay out possible pathways to an interstate elementary school district, anticipate a joint meeting on May 15 to present what they've learned.
"What we're here to do is see if it's even something that's possible, that's feasible," said Anna d'Entremont, PCG senior consultant and team leader. "We don't know yet. ... Our job is to really help facilitate a process that will by the end of the school year provide some answers and clarity."
Should the towns pursue a joining, it would likely happen no earlier than 2021 because any collaboration will require both state legislative and congressional approval.
On Monday, some three dozen residents and school and town officials from both towns gathered at Stamford School despite the windy and snowy weather to speak about their hopes and fears.
There were far more hopeful comments than concerns, with members from both communities believing a merged or shared district would provide more opportunities for their children and, possibly, savings for the towns.
"My hope as a parent is we go back to individual classes," said parent Katie Sarkis of Stamford. The small school often has combined grades and joining with the larger Clarksburg School could make that possible as well as expanding programming. "We could really benefit as a town having our kids under the Massachusetts curriculum before they go to high school."
One of the expectations in merging the two K-8 elementary districts will be that the students will take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests rather than the Vermont standardized tests.
Stamford students attend high schools in Massachusetts, mostly Drury High School and McCann Technical School in North Adams. Most Clarksburg students attend these schools as well. Students have to pass the MCAS to graduate, which can put the Vermont students at a disadvantage in 10th grade.
School Board members said only one student in the past several years had opted to attend a Vermont high school and another had tried but ended up transferring to a Massachusetts school.
Several people agreed separate classrooms for grades would be a benefit. A Clarksburg parent noted that Stamford has a preschool, something that Clarksburg has been unable to find space for.
"I think it's unique our schools are so close," she said. "Any commute I don't think will be a barrier."
The towns will look at three options: doing nothing, becoming a joined district but maintaining the schools as is, or fully merging to take full advantage of both school buildings.
"It strikes me that Clarksburg needs more space and Stamford needs more students," said another woman.
Clarksburg School Principal Tara Barnes noted that the recent feasibility study of her school had determined it was undersized and did not have the space needed for certain activities, such as special education services.
"There are space constraints," she said. "That's why we were trying to have a renovation/addition ... If we need any special education services, we have to find ways for it to happen. ...
"And it would be nice to have a preschool offering."
Clarksburg had attempted a school renovation but the $19 million project was shot down. The 60-year-old building needs some significant updates of its envelope and security and accessibility issues. Stamford, too, has an aging school.
"I'm concerned about the facility in Clarksburg whether that's going to have an impact on Stamford taxes if we have to pick that up," said one Stamford resident. "We are 100 percent needing to align with Massachusetts ... but that we as taxpayers have the assurance we have a sustainable school."
At the same time, he said, residents have invested in their homes and the lack of a school -- or having to bus children far away -- would also have a tax impact by making Stamford less attractive.
"I think one of the main concerns is the tax rate," said School Board member Barbara Malinowski. "In both towns, there's a lot of older people on fixed incomes. That's what I've heard from both towns."
D'Entremont said the financial aspect had not come up during conversations with residents and officials on Monday but it has come up before. One member of the team is focusing solely on the financial impacts and should be able to provide the towns with some information to base a decision on. But it will not be definitive, she cautioned.
"We can answer here there are cost savings and here there might be additional costs," she said. "The buildings are a big question ... that's something we'll spend time looking at."
The team is also looking at how teacher licensing, contract agreements, seniority and retirement will be affected.
"We want to make sure they don't get hurt," D'Entremont said. "We want to make sure there's a seamless transition."
The proposed merger is largely being driven by Vermont's Act 46, which seeks to streamline educational needs by consolidation. Stamford was being pushed to join with towns farther north but, at the invitation of Clarksburg officials, began to look at a cross-border option. Two years ago, the Interstate School District Committee comprised of members from each town began to pursue the possibility.
Asked if Stamford would be pressured by Vermont to conform with Act 46, School Board Chairwoman Cynthia Lamore said exploration of the interstate project has been cleared by the state and supported by the town's state representatives.
"The Agency of Education took many towns with loose plans that didn't fit the criteria and they merged them," she said. "By us being granted additional time, they've left us alone ... they could have forced a merge on us."
This was PCG's second trip to the towns to speak with stakeholders and the second public meeting it has held to update residents and gain input. Monday had been spent in Stamford and Tuesday would be in Clarksburg.
The team will be back in March to present a "summary of findings" and would meet with the Interstate School District Committee in late April to refine the findings ahead of May's joint meeting that would layout recommendations and a roadmap.
"It's never been done in Massachusetts before," D'Entremont said of the proposed interstate district. "There's a lot of planning involved. ... Our strong recommendation is it's something that needs to be thought out and planned."
The meeting was recorded for airing on Northern Berkshire Community Television in North Adams and Clarksburg.
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With Heating Set, Clarksburg School Turns to Security Upgrade
By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
CLARKSBURG, Mass. — Clarksburg School expects to have plans in hand for a new security entrance in two weeks.
Principal Tara Barnes reported that Westall Architects is nearly completed with designs that will allow the project to be put to out to bid.
"They've been working on plans for a while, and they should have something else back Oct. 14," she told the School Committee and members of the renovation group on Thursday. "They've been working with some engineers and drawing the design in touch with folks who do the glass."
The school received a $35,000 state grant to address security concerns. Barnes said she had not detailed the need for a public address system but felt that also falls under security.
The Select Board interviewed finalists Lisa Blackmer, treasurer/tax collector in the town of Buckland, and Rebecca Stone, town administrator in Otis, and plan to pick one of the two Wednesday to replace former Town Administrator Carl McKinney who resigned in May.
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