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Study: Interstate School Merger Beneficial But 'Untenable' With COVID-19

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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CLARKSBURG, Mass. — A 37-page report released presented to Clarksburg and Stamford, Vt., last week lays out the pros and cons of an interstate school district merger. 
 
The report by Public Consulting Group looks at a broad range of factors and challenges in such a merger and comes to the conclusion it can be beneficial to both towns if "done thoughtfully."
 
"PCG believes the proposed merger model is both educationally and fiscally sound," the report states.
 
It recommends a governing body of seven with three from Stamford and four from Clarksburg; teacher licensure and retirement through Massachusetts; standards-based curriculum; special education on the Massachusetts guidelines; and better uses of existing space in the two schools and expansion of enrichment offerings.
 
On the more problematic side is complicated funding issues as Massachusetts and Vermont have very different educational aid formulas and the building issues at Clarksburg School. 
 
This is the second study commissioned by the Interstate Merger Committee that is made up of officials and volunteers in both communities. 
 
The school merger proposal goes back several years and arose from a Vermont law that forced school districts to combine to streamline governance and finances. Stamford, on the Massachusetts border, looked south at the invitation of Clarksburg officials. Voters in both towns as well as both state legislatures have encouraged further discussion and funded the studies so far. 
 
The report was presented at a joint town meeting on Thursday that had to be held via teleconference because of novel coronavirus pandemic. About a three dozen people logged in for the meeting. The pandemic is another obstacle at the moment that officials note will likely delay any merger process and creates a level of uncertainty on available funds. 
 
"Our conclusion is that the hurdles that currently exist likely make a viable merger untenable in the
immediate future. PCG has concerns that start-up costs for a merger may be more of an expense than
either district can bear right now, even if it means a merger will most likely result in longer term savings," the report states.
 
PCG project manager Amanda Preston-Sicari described Thursday's meeting as the Cliff Notes version of the report that can be read in full on the Clarksburg School website. 
 
"There's a lot of deep information in the report," she said. "The first phase was looking at 'is this feasible.' On this report, we highlighted those areas that we thought were most critical to understand or to unpack based on what we learned in the last phase and started to map out what a path forward might look like in each of those areas and specific recommendations for next steps."
 
PCG spoke with more than 50 stakeholders and officials in both states' education departments. The study looked at several scenarios including doing nothing, tuitioning Stamford students, fully merging, regionalization within the North Berkshire School Union, and the possibility for Clarksburg to close and send students to North Adams. 
 
"The interstate merger really does seem like the best sort of solution for now and that's where we dug into a number of different areas," Preston-Sicari said.
 
Of import is physical condition of Clarksburg School. The town rejected a school building project several years ago but last year approved $500,000 in debt exclusion funding to address critical issues. The School Committee recently decided to put off submitting a statement of interest to attempt another building project because of the financial uncertainties caused by the pandemic.
 
"Before anything else, there has to be a plan to make the required changes and upgrades and remodeling of the Clarksburg School that has to happen," said PCG's David Driscoll, former state commissioner of education. "There are serious issues including ADA and access issues, and we know about the expenses and so forth and repairs have been made with some of the money that's been allocated, but that's the No. 1 issue."
 
Stamford has fewer building issues but there is a question of who owns the school building, which also houses the town offices, town library and Stamford Seniors activities. Both buildings' town libraries should be assessed for educational access. 
 
The use of both schools is seen as a way to address a number of space shortcomings by turning Stamford into a prekindergarten to Grade 2 early education center and sending the older students up to Grade 8 to Clarksburg. 
 
"This would certainly allow us to address the prekindergarten issue, which is a big issue for our town,
 said North Berkshire School Union Superintendent John Franzoni. "I think as the report says over 90 percent of school districts in Massachusetts have a prekindergarten program. We do not have one right now."
 
The merger agreement would identify a new collective bargaining unit of teachers from both schools. Vermont teachers with three years experience to be grandfathered into Massachusetts certification. Future teachers would automatically be part of the Massachusetts Teachers Retirement System. These actions would require language changes and a discussion of health benefits. 
 
PCG's MaryEllen Hannon said the study looked at existing interstate school districts — there are two Vermont/New Hampshire districts now and a third being considered — in recommending a governance structure. 
 
"The governance structure that we're recommending is four members of Clarksburg and three members of Stamford with two-thirds majority [five votes] on important issues that have to be decided," she said. "Therefore one town does not get to dominate any decisions being made. It needs to be a collaborative focus and conversation."
 
At least one member from both towns would have to be present to take a vote and even in a simple majority vote, at least one affirmative vote from each town would be required to pass. Each town is also recommended to have a voting member on the NBSU committee.
 
Such a structure would avoid a situation as happened in the former Adams-Cheshire Regional School District when the committee voted along town lines to close Cheshire School, causing a great deal of friction between the two communities. 
 
The next steps would be seeking legal assistance in writing an agreement and legislation, should the towns vote to move forward. And working with tax attorneys to determine how property taxes might be affected. 
 
Franzoni said the towns have been able obtain grant funding in the past to pay for the studies but the pandemic has greatly changed the state's financial picture.
 
"I think given the current situation it might be a little more challenging but it would certainly be something we have to leave to our school committees and select boards to ask them for approval because obviously budgets are a little uncertain right now," he said. "We'll have to explore what funds are available to to cover legal or other process would be incurred going forward with any further work."
 
Stamford school officials were hesitant to consider another special town meeting vote until Clarksburg makes a decision, particularly about its building. Clarksburg has scheduled its annual town meeting in June; Stamford's was held in early March.
 
"Right now, I feel Stamford's in a holding position until Clarksburg decides what they want to do with their building," said School Board Director Barb Malinowski. 
 
Director Helen Field agreed, saying "it does seem a little awkward to ask Stamford what they want to do until we hear back from Clarksburg. So it sounds like we're in a holding pattern on two different levels — both the virus, COVID-level finance issues and waiting for Clarksburg."
 
But Field didn't think the research would be outdated soon so would still be useful if the merger took longer than anticipated. 
 
The PCG consultants encouraged both schools to consider implementing recommendations including long-term capital plans, possible shared opportunities and, for Clarksburg, exploring regionalization with NBSU or North Adams. 
 
"We from PCG strongly believe that really some type of action is needed," said Preston-Sicari. "Remaining as is may not be a long-term solution for either community."

Tags: Clarksburg School,   interstate ,   merger,   stamford school,   

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Clarksburg Town Meeting Passes $4.6M Budget, OKs Truck Purchase

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff

Select Board member Allen M. Arnold is sworn into office by Jeanne Moulthrop, voted temporary town clerk for the meeting.
CLARKSBURG, Mass. — A sparse town meeting burned through a 19-article warrant on Wednesday night under sunny skies. 
 
The meeting, held on the lawn of the Senior Center because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, swiftly approved a town budget of $4,565,710 and the purchase of a new Department of Public Works truck for $250,000.
 
Based on the financial articles passed on Wednesday, including a transfer of $98,000 from free cash to reduce the tax rate, the property tax rate is estimated at $17.86 per $1,000 valuation, three cents lower than this year.
 
The town has a current free cash fund of $518,892; town meeting also approved transferring $250,000 in free cash to the stabilization account and using $64,138.20 to pay off the library loan. 
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