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After a struggle, SBRSD panel appoints newcomer as chair amid complaints about transparency

It’s been a tumultuous last few weeks that included a bomb scare, an illegal vote by the school committee, a school committee walking out of a meeting and a vow by the town of Egremont to withhold hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to the five-town regional school district.

Sheffield — After violating state law at last week’s meeting, watching as one of its members walked out of that meeting and incurring the wrath of constituents who say it mishandled the filling of a committee vacancy, the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee was determined to get it right the next week.

But not everything went according to plan Thursday night, Dec. 6. The committee had to revote on most of the items on last week’s agenda because it had clearly violated the state’s open meeting laws when it opted to reorganize and elect its officers by secret ballot. 

Ken Knox explains why he would be the best choice for chair of the school committee. Photo: Terry Cowgill

So when the floor once again opened for nominations for officers, committee members had to show their cards. After much maneuvering, the committee settled on veteran member Art Batacchi of Sheffield and newcomer Kenneth Knox of Egremont as the nominees to chair the committee. 

There are normally 10 members of the committee, but two Sheffield members were absent. Tim Schroepfer resigned recently and Dennis Sears missed the first portion of the meeting because he was confused about the earlier-than-usual starting time. 

Click here to see the replay on Community Television for the Southern Berkshires. The discussion about the officers occurs immediately because the annual election of a chair is required to be the first order of business before the committee can proceed with anything else. 

Bonnie Silvers, second from right, withdraws her candidacy for chair. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Eager to right the ship, the committee went for a vote after member Bonnie Silvers was nominated for chair but withdrew. That left Batacchi and Knox. Committee members and some in the audience appeared stunned when a roll call resulted in a 4-4 tie.  

Knox and Batacchi, who both voted for themselves, paused in an effort to sway a vote or two. Batacchi, who served on the committee previously in the 1990s and was elected the chair in the previous week’s illegal vote, asserted that he would “appreciate the courtesy of being chair.” That sparked a stern rebuke from Knox, who was the only committee member to object to the secret ballot. 

“The role of the chair is not a courtesy to be granted from a previous vote,” said Knox, an assistant professor of mathematics at Simon’s Rock. “Last week’s meeting was the most disorganized that I’ve seen in my short time. That is on all of us, but it’s also on the chair. And so I will say that I’m not very happy about that.” 

Superintendent Beth Regulbuto, right, is relieved not to have to serve anymore as temporary chair of the school committee after the election of Ken Knox, second from left, holding water bottle.

Two more rounds of voting resulted in the same deadlock. Committee members were not eager to switch votes. Superintendent Beth Regulbuto was acting as chair until a school committee member could be elected but she appeared stumped. 

Michelle Allaire McNulty, the school district’s attorney, was seated in the audience and suggested the committee adjourn for five minutes, presumably to contact Sears, who finally arrived in time for a fourth vote. To the surprise of some in the audience, the veteran Sears voted for Knox, who had run last month with a cast of younger candidates on a message of generational change. Silvers had also announced her support for Knox.

Michelle Allaire McNulty, the school district’s attorney, explains that a chair must be elected before any agenda items can be considered. Photo: Terry Cowgill

McNulty drove from the law firm’s headquarters in Braintree to attend the meeting because on the agenda was an executive session to discuss a district employee “based upon complaints brought against District administrators and staff in a survey of former employees provided to the Committee by a resident.” In addition, there were discussions of two cases of “imminently likely” litigation, one of which involved the South Egremont School. 

School committee member David Travis of New Marlborough read a statement. Travis, who works as a test prep content manager for the online Khan Academy, chairs the district’s executive evaluation subcommittee and has worked with Regulbuto to develop the superintendent’s goals after she was evaluated earlier this year. 

Though he did not elaborate, Travis said, “I am concerned about existing conflicts of interest that have perpetuated (and tacitly encouraged) a narrative of division and conflict in our district.”

“Art has consistently, conscientiously recused himself from votes where there may be a reasonable perception of a conflict of interest. I appreciate that. I’m not convinced that Bonnie has been as conscientious.” 

Click here to read Travis’ entire statement. Travis said he also saw Batacchi “as being significantly more supportive of the Superintendent’s goals than one of the other candidates.” Travis wanted to see “more data-driven efforts to improve” and a “shift towards a culture of continuous improvement.” 

Travis also had strong words for Save SBRSD, a new Facebook watchdog group that bills itself as “a forum for parents and members of the Mt. Everett community.” The tone and content of the group is critical of the district. Travis called Save SBRSD “a cynical, damaging distraction from the work that matters.”

After the tumultuous last few weeks that included a bomb scare, the illegal vote, Sears walking out of a meeting and a vow by the town of Egremont to withhold hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to the five-town regional school district until the matter of the South Egremont School was resolved, the public comment period of Thursday’s meeting was highly anticipated. 

Those who were looking for excitement weren’t disappointed. Sears expressed regret for having walked out the meeting the week before. He read a statement in which he reiterated his concern about the settlement with the town of Egremont over its school and the potential liability of both the district and individual school committee members if the lead levels in the building were found to be unsafe.

But after learning of the open meeting law violation, Sears said he reconsidered his vow to resign and so never sent a letter to the chair, who at that time was thought to be Batacchi.

“I apologize for acting in such a dramatic manner when I should have realized that I could have just gone home and written the required letter after the meeting and also apologized for failing to call out the potential violation of the open meeting law before vote was taken,” Sears said. 

Patrick Barrett, president of the Southern Berkshire Regional Education Association, talks about the need for transparency on the school committee. Photo: CTSB

Two other educators also spoke. Patrick Barrett a history teacher at Mount Everett Regional School and the head of the Southern Berkshire Regional Education Association, the union representing teachers in the district, said whenever anyone asks him about Southern Berkshire, “I brag about it.”

“That is why it pains me to see where we are right now,” Barrett said. “In the classroom things are great but, for whatever reason, we have this kind of thing hanging over us.” 

Barrett has served on the Farmington River Regional School Committee and on the Sandisfield Board of Selectmen. He said he was recently in Pittsfield for a meeting with colleagues from the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Some attendees whose districts were experiencing difficulties had quipped, “Well, at least I’m not in Southern Berkshire.” 

“Needless to say, I was quite the celebrity,” Barrett continued. “I didn’t want to be.” 

The Southern Berkshire union this fall held a school committee candidate forum in which there was a lot of talk about transparency, which Barrett said is “more than using a word; it’s about actions.”

“Mr. Knox voted against secret ballot based on transparency,” Barrett added. “I thank you; I’m very glad you’re the chairman of this school committee.”

New Marlborough resident Jessica A. Schaefer told the school committee , “The will of the voters is not being respected.”

 Jessica A. Schaefer of New Marlborough, who identified herself as a parent and educator, urged the Sheffield members to appoint Jonathan Bruno to the open seat on the school committee that was vacated by Schroepfer. Click here for an Edge explainer on that complicated situation and click here to view Bruno’s statement of candidacy, which emphasizes transparency and communication. 

“It appears that the will of the voters is not being respected,” Schaefer said. “I’ve been an educator for the better part of 18 years … and I’m concerned. The appointive body is refusing to recognize the will of voters when your selectboard has requested that you appoint Mr. Bruno.” 

And without responding, the school committee adjourned to executive session with its attorney, McNulty.


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