Sheffield — Under pressure to do so in order to settle a lawsuit, the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee voted earlier this month to fund the vacant South Egremont School to the tune of about $175,000. But there are many unanswered questions about both the school and the future of the district.
At its Sept. 7 meeting (click here to view it on CTSB), the school committee voted with near unanimity to fund the school, whose operations it had attempted to put on hiatus last year. In response to that, the town of Egremont filed a lawsuit alleging the school committee had violated the regional agreement that required a formal procedure to be followed for closing one of the so-called “outlying schools”– the three schools located outside the district’s main campus in Sheffield: Egremont, Monterey and New Marlborough Central.
The school committee voted to settle the lawsuit in June, agreeing to either fund the school or begin the process to formally close it through a series of public hearings and approval in separate votes in four of the five member towns as stipulated in the regional agreement, which dates to 1953.
According to the settlement, the school committee had to make a decision on whether to start the procedures for closing the school, or set operational funds aside for the South Egremont School for the 2018-19 academic year, by Sunday, Oct. 1.
But at its meeting earlier this month, the school committee discussed a variety of what-ifs. What if the committee allocates the funds and the school, which is being restored and renovated to the tune of about $250,000, isn’t ready to accept students by the beginning of the next school year? What if it doesn’t pass certain inspections in time for the opening of school?
“What if we fund the school and the school does not open?” asked school committee member Art Battachi of Sheffield.
School committee Chairman Carl Stewart and business administrator Christine Regan tried to answer those questions.
“We would still have that money in the budget,” Stewart said. “The school committee would have the authority to transfer those funds for another purpose.”
Less clear is what happens if enrollment in the school winds up being very low. This year there were 15 students, seven of whom choiced in from other districts, in first grade and kindergarten. What if only a few students are enrolled in 2018? What if the school committee decides to go forward with the formal procedure of closing the school?
The Edge reached out to Stewart in an effort to determine how high the enrollment would have to be for an academic program to be run in the South Egremont School.
“The threshold has not been established,” Stewart explained. “If one is set, it will be by the Policy Subcommittee of the school committee and then a recommendation will be made by Policy to the full committee, subject to approval by a majority vote.”
“If you vote to bring the closure forward, we would still need to fund the program, because we don’t know how the towns are going to eventually vote,” Regan added. “So you’d be in the same situation. If the towns vote to close the school, then that money would still be available because we have to have it in there.”
School committee member Genis Melendez-Delaney of Egremont told the committee that taxpayers in her town appropriated $250,000 to renovate the school, which is in the village’s National Register Historic District and was one of the last one-room schoolhouses in continuous operation in the nation.
Melendez-Delaney further noted that the town received a $50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission for renovations to the building, which was built in 1880.
“They have from now to next year to get that school ready and their intention is to get it ready,” Melendez-Delaney said. “Egremont has a lot of support for that little school. I think we should know that that building could be ready.”
If the Egremont school does open in the fall of 2018, what kind of program would it house? The same one (K-1) that was running when the one-room schoolhouse emptied out in June and renovations began? Again, the Edge asked Stewart, who responded:
“As there is not a program in place for the year beginning next September, it is impossible to say at this point what such a program would look like. Conceptually, there is no requirement that a program beginning a year from now would have to be the same program as existed in the last year.”
School committee member Dennis Sears of Sheffield said he had conversations “with people from all five [district] towns who have basically said, ‘Why don’t you put the thing out to close all three of the outlying schools? To take the action for all three [outlying schools] and put it out in front of the voters and see what happens?'”
School committee member Francoise Lartigue of New Marlborough objected, noting that the last time there was a serious movement to close the outlying schools about five years ago, the district began losing students.
“The district hemorrhaged students and we can’t afford to hemorrhage students by having that kind of animosity and anger and fear of closing one school among the three,” Lartigue said.
In 2012, the school committee put forward a formal proposal to close the three community schools. A parent-led initiative, Save Our Schools, was formed and was ultimately successful in convincing the school committee to put the brakes on the closure plan.
Interestingly, Sears, who has been a skeptic of the outlying schools, has an unlikely ally in his advocacy of going through the school closure process: Bruce Turner, who chairs the Egremont Board of Selectmen–the same board that sued the school committee earlier this year.
In an Edge interview, Turner, the former business administrator for the Southern Berkshire Regional School District and himself a former school committee member for the district, said the issue of closing the outlying schools needs a better hearing, both for the good of the district and its member towns.
Last year the school committee put the Monterey schoolhouse on hiatus. The announcement earlier this year that the school committee intended to do the same in Egremont threw the budget approval process into chaos, with both Egremont and Monterey voting down funding their own shares of the district’s FY 2018 budget and forcing the school committee to regroup and ultimately to settle the lawsuit.
“I don’t know what the future holds but the only way to find out is go through the process of closing,” Turner said. “I would hate to do it but that would probably give the school committee the best guidance on what to do with the outlying schools. There would be hearings … It’s simple. If the people decide to keep the schools open, then we fund them.”
At the same time, Turner added, “It’s time we start talking with our neighbors.”
School enrollment numbers have dropped significantly all across the Berkshires. According to a Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District had 1,072 students in the year 2000. It has about 650 now, having lost 6 percent of its enrollment this year, but by 2025 it is projected to have only 462 in all grades across the five towns in the district.
Turner said Southern Berkshire needs to hold serious talks with the Berkshire Hills and Farmington River regional school districts about possible consolidation and mergers.
“I’m certainly willing to talk to anyone who wants to talk about moving forward with Berkshire Hills or even Farmington River and Richmond,” Turner said.
Turner said, when he was on the school committee in the early 1990s, Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills held serious talks about a merger and even went so far as to hire a consultant.
“They had the papers written and there were some real concrete discussions and then it fell apart,” Turner recalled. However, Turner said enrollment losses have made the concept of consolidation more urgent.
As luck would have it, last week the Berkshire Hills School Committee voted to leave the Berkshire County Education Task Force, which had recommended a single, countywide district. Instead, Berkshire Hills will explore mergers with Southern Berkshire and Lee.
Turner said he has already offered his assistance to Berkshire Hills School Committee member Rich Dohoney, who initiated the exit from the task force in favor of merging with other nearby districts.
“Let’s talk about what we can do,” Turner said.
The Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee will meet next on Thursday, Sept. 28, at 6 p.m. in the Mount Everett Regional School Library.