WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A divided Mount Greylock Regional School Committee voted on Wednesday to approve a memorandum of agreement with the district's teachers that the entire committee characterized as "disappointing" but "the best we could do."
In a vote of 3-1 at a special remote meeting of the panel, it followed up an 80-minute executive session to review the MOA with a vote that set the parameters for "remote learning" in the district during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both the district's elementary schools and middle-high school have been closed since March 13, and public schools throughout the commonwealth are closed until at least May 4 by order of Gov. Charlie Baker.
In the last full week of March, the commissioner of education directed districts to enact remote learning plans, touching off a lengthy series of negotiations between the School Committee and the Mount Greylock Educators Association, the union that represents teachers in the Pre-K through Grade 12 district.
The agreement approved by the School Committee on Wednesday allows formal instruction to begin on Thursday.
Although the district has had a number of resources — including links to learning platforms — on its website for weeks, teachers have been under no obligation to have direct contact with their students; they have continued to be paid under their existing labor agreement.
Many teachers have reached out directly to students and families with enrichment opportunities and optional assignments.
Starting Thursday, the assignments become mandatory, as does the teachers' engagement with students.
But it was clear that the amount of engagement required under the MOA was not to the liking of the School Committee members.
"I know I speak for the committee when I say that it took longer and was more difficult than expected to agree upon a minimum amount of time required for teacher engagement with their students during the upcoming period when we'll be doing remote learning," said Jamie Art, who chaired the committee's negotiation subcommittee.
"We are disappointed with the outcome of the negotiations and also disappointed that it took so long to get where we are. And it's disheartening that this was the best we could do. But we think it was the best we could do to restart education under our current circumstances.
"And it's our hope that teachers will elect to go far beyond the minimums that are required under the agreement."
Wednesday evening, the district's principals notified families in a robo-call that the deal had been reached.
As specified by the MOA, teachers at Williamstown Elementary and Lanesborough Elementary will be required to have "direct, daily contact" with their pupils using "recorded or live video or audio," but the agreement does not specify the length of that contact per day. Teachers also will be committed to maintain "office hours," three times per week for 20 minutes at a time to allow parents to check in with questions.
At the middle-high school, teachers will be required to assign 2 1/2 hours worth of work per week for each scheduled course. And teachers will be required to have "recorded or live video" contact for with students for 20 minutes per week per class. Teachers at Mount Greylock also will be required to hold office hours and are required to check their email at least twice per day and "respond in a timely fashion."
Teachers also agreed to work through the previously scheduled April vacation week, except for the state Patriots Day holiday on April 20. And teachers will have professional development opportunities to work on the skills that facilitate remote learning.
In response to an email seeking further comment, Art said the committee felt it needed to bring the negotiations to a close even though the agreement was not to its liking.
"Because we've been on hold for weeks and really need to launch a program to continue learning during this time of dislocation and isolation," Art said when asked why negotiations are not continuing.
"The School Committee's understanding is that mediation would take a month or more without any guarantee that teaching would happen in the interim."
School Committee member Steven Miller, the lone member of the panel to vote against the MOA, echoed Art's comments during the meeting.
"I share the frustration of my fellow committee members and the desire to continue to move forward, but I cannot vote to approve the memorandum of agreement," Miller said. "While I know most teachers will do far more than the minimum, I cannot support these minimums being enshrined as being acceptable to meet the educational needs of our students."
Miller also was at the center of another issue confronting the School Committee at Wednesday's meeting.
It was the fifth public session for the committee since then-Chair Dan Caplinger resigned in February, leaving the normally seven-person panel short-handed.
A special meeting of the committee and the select boards from Williamstown and Lanesborough to appoint a replacement was scheduled for March 23 and rescheduled for April 6 but postponed on both occasions because of the pandemic, which has prevented public bodies from meeting.
On March 31, the school district received an email from Lanesborough Town Manager Kelli Robbins informing the School Committee that the town's Board of Selectmen wanted the joint meeting delayed until such time "the Governor's Order [to suspend non-essential functions] has been lifted or amended to allow such a meeting."
Robbins wrote that in the opinion of the Lanesborough Selectmen, a meeting to appoint a replacement for Caplinger is "in no way an essential meeting."
Robbins' email makes no reference to the governor's special order enabling remote meetings of public bodies, a provision that has been employed extensively throughout Berkshire County, including by the Williamstown Select Board and the School Committee.
Miller, a resident of Williamstown, and Lanesborough resident Al Terranova on Wednesday both objected to the delay in filling one of the four Williamstown seats on the seven-person School Committee.
"What I was most concerned about was … [the Lanesborough BOS] made the determination whether or not a seventh member was necessary or essential," Terranova said. "That's a decision the School Committee makes, not the Select Board.
"We're a duly elected decision-making body. We're not required to get approval from other bodies. That's our decision to make."
Terranova continued, "I think it's very disappointing … the fact that the Lanesborough select board doesn't meet so we can seat a Williamstown resident. Politically, that makes us all look bad."
Miller noted that the district's regional agreement calls for vacancies on the committee to be filled in 30 days. While he said he understood the initial delay, it has dragged on too long, and he asked what would happen if the governor extends his "non-essential" business order beyond May 4.
Over the last week, Miller has engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with School Committee Chair Christina Conry, arguing that the regional agreement does not require that all three bodies — the select boards and School Committee — attend a special meeting to name a replacement but rather that all three be allowed to participate.
"The selectmen from both Lanesborough and Williamstown will meet together at the Mount Greylock Regional School within thirty (30) calendar days with the remaining [School] Committee members to fill such vacancy by roll call vote. A majority of the votes of the elected officials entitled to vote shall be necessary to such an election," the agreement reads in part.
Miller reasoned that with six current School Committee members and five members of the Williamstown Select Board, a joint meeting could satisfy the quorum requirements without the three members of the Lanesborough Board of Selectmen.
The district sought and received an opinion on the question from its legal counsel, and Fred Dupere wrote on April 3 that "The language is clear that the selectmen from both towns and the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee are needed for this meeting. This means there must be a posting by each entity for the meeting, and a quorum for each entity must be present."
Miller challenged Dupere's conclusion in his emails to Conry and asked for a vote at Wednesday's meeting to make an appeal to the state attorney general on Dupere's interpretation of the language in the regional agreement.
No such agenda item was included on Wednesday's agenda.
But the email exchange between Miller and Conry, which was forwarded to the School Committee members in Wednesday's meeting packet, drew a rebuke from committee member Regina DiLego, who accused Miller of "badgering" the chair.
"I do not quite understand what is so urgent about getting the seventh member on the committee," DiLego said.
"The notion that the Lanesborough Board of Selectmen has just been avoiding this rather than being busy trying to deal with town matters as members of a Board of Selectmen who are actively working in their jobs … We forget that. Not everyone is sitting in their homes."
Grady said she has been in constant communication with town officials in both member towns since the COVID-19 crisis began, and the lines of communication between the district and the town have been productive and essential.
"It's not like they're sitting home and refusing [to meet]," Grady said. "[Lanesborough Selectmen] Hank [Sayers] and John [Goerlach] and Gordon [Hubbard] have essential jobs. … It's not like they were sitting there saying, 'We're not going to do this because it's a giant inconvenience.'
"There are other things going on in Lanesborough that maybe the public isn't aware of and this committee isn't aware of."
Miller contended — both in his emails and again Wednesday afternoon — that a joint meeting of the three bodies to name a replacement for Caplinger should only take "five minutes" because the district only has one applicant, a former Mount Greylock Regional School Committee chair.
"Just because there's only one candidate, it doesn't mean people won't ask questions," she said. "It doesn't mean they don't get to vote."
Terranova in an April 2 email to Conry said that he was, "with Steve [Miller] on this."
On Wednesday, Art, a Williamstown resident who was himself appointed to the School Committee by a joint meeting of the three boards last year, sounded resigned to the May 4 date.
"I am disappointed it's taken so long," Art said. "Lots of boards are meeting remotely to move things forward, but if this is the best we can do, then it's the best we can do.
"If the Lanesborough selectmen don't want to participate on May 4, then we need to talk about just scheduling a meeting and invite everyone who can participate to participate. I don't think we can get in a situation where one board is able to frustrate the ability to fill a seat. It's something that should be able to happen, even in the current situation."
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