As SBRSD elections take shape, questions persist about district personnel and sustainabilityMore Info
Sheffield —There are only a few lawns signs. But it’s there. You just have to look hard to find it. Buried somewhere in the disorderly mass of the congressional midterm elections and a pitched battle for Berkshire District Attorney is the race for Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee.
But the election is only one small piece of the puzzle. Southern Berkshire, the first K-12 regional school district in the state, is also the smallest and has seen grim enrollment projections that predict a 25 percent loss over the next 10 years. That makes it a question mark as to whether the district is even sustainable in the long run.
The district had a rocky opening in September when a faculty member posted on Facebook complaining of a “hostile work environment” and, referring to the school district, added, “It is not safe.”
Kurt DeGrenier, the popular Mount Everett dean of students, was suspended but has returned. There have been numerous complaints on social media about second-year Superintendent Beth Regulbuto. And last week, the school committee held a special meeting to go into executive session to discuss the fate of an employee and the potential “discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.”
Then there is the long-running battle between the school committee and the town of Egremont over reopening the South Egremont School. The town sued the district last year over the school committee’s decision to suspend operations in South Egremont.
The suit was later settled but with the agreement that the district eventually reopen the school after it underwent $350,000 in renovations — at the town’s expense. In addition, the agreement stipulated that if it wanted to formally close the school, the school committee must go through proper procedure, as outlined in the district agreement with the five towns.
But a dispute over lead levels in the building has caused the school committee to move the 13 students who would have been in South Egremont this academic year to Undermountain Elementary, the much larger regional school in Sheffield.
That has led some cynical Egremonters to suspect that the school committee was once again employing dilatory tactics to eventually force the permanent closure of the one-room schoolhouse.
Meanwhile, the school committee insists students have been withheld from the school because lead levels are too high after the renovations and that the town is oblivious to health risks and has dragged its feet on remediation efforts.
Last week, an exasperated Egremont Board of Selectmen took the extreme step of voting unanimously “to withhold any further payments to the School District until such time as the class has been moved into the South Egremont School House.”
Egremont’s quarterly payments to Southern Berkshire, based mostly on the number of students from the town enrolled in the district, are approximately $400,000, according to Bruce Turner, the former business administrator for Southern Berkshire who now chairs the Egremont Board of Selectmen. That payment is due Nov. 15.
“We are not getting anywhere with the school district on our little schoolhouse,” Turner said in an interview. “I think the Southern Berkshire School Committee has lost sight of the students.
“They’re more concerned about what’s going on in the towns than anything else,” Turner continued. “But my beef is that the school committee is there to live by the district agreement and not try to redefine it.”
Turner said he is supporting school committee candidates who are running on a platform of change. Some of these candidates are running against incumbents and two others are running unopposed — or, in one case, at least he thought he was. Some are running as write-in candidates after making last-minute decisions to run. Others gathered signatures and submitted petitions to have their names placed on the ballot.
Still others are on the ballot but have never actually been elected, having been appointed temporarily to serve the unexpired terms of school committee members who either resigned or have died.
At first, it looked as if two towns would see uncontested races. In Egremont, Kenneth Knox was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Genis Melendez-Delaney, who resigned this spring. No one else has stepped up as a candidate, so Knox is running unopposed. More on him later.
In Alford, longtime school committee member and former chairman Carl Stewart declined to run for re-election, but has confirmed to the Edge that he has reconsidered and has recently decided to retain his seat on the committee as a write-in candidate.
Meanwhile, Jeff Blaugrund, a Southern Berkshire parent in Alford, had already made the decision to enter the election as a write-in candidate and assumed he would be running unopposed. That equation has changed. Blaugrund will now be running against Stewart, a former federal prosecutor who until earlier this year had chaired the school committee since 2012. But neither will actually be on the ballot. Their names must be written in legibly.
“I have greatly enjoyed my time on the committee and my sole reason for initially deciding against running was that I am not a kid and I believe that it is beneficial to have new blood every few years,” Stewart told The Edge.
But Stewart said he has now become convinced that he should remain on the committee, in part because he is the only attorney on that panel and because “my experience, particularly my litigation skills, can be helpful to the district, particularly during a time when we will probably have serious discussions regarding intra-district cooperation, merger, and/or consolidation.”
Stewart is known to be an ally of two other school committee members, Bonnie Silvers and Dennis Sears, both of whom are also running for re-election and live in Sheffield.
In a wide-ranging interview, Silvers, who now chairs the committee, said she supports Stewart’s write-in bid. Sears added that he personally urged Stewart to reconsider his decision not to run for reelection.
“I support Carl because he brings an experience but also a legal expertise,” Silvers said. “I know I can turn to him lots of times and ask him what he thinks. He has the ability to look at it in a legal way and I can draw upon that.”
Silvers herself has considerable experience in education, having worked for decades as a teacher and administrator in secondary education and on the college level, mostly in New York City.
“I feel that there’s important work to be done and I really believe that I have the ability to really, in a way, mediate and hear a lot of different sides on a number of issues,” Silvers said. “I believe so strongly in this district that I’m in a position to see it through. This is such a critical time in this district.”
As an example of her work, Silvers said she has played a key role in forming a panel to explore new assessment formulas for payments the five member towns must make to the district. The new proposal, which would amend the district agreement, would help stabilize what are sometimes dramatic assessment swings.
“Right now, they go wildly from year to year,” Silvers said. “This could be ready for votes [in the towns] in the spring.
Silvers, who is in her sixth year on the school committee, was skeptical of the discouraging enrollment projections from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. This fall, for example, the district saw so many more kindergarteners than expected that it had to create a new class. But she did acknowledge that Southern Berkshire needs to market itself.
Of the lack of broadband internet service in much of South County, Silvers said, “If we bridge that last mile, we could become like the North Fork of Long Island… The next generation of jobs is not tied to buildings.”
As required by law, Silvers would not comment in detail on the executive session held last week. She did say that the employee was not disciplined or fired. But neither is the situation resolved. But that could change on Thursday when the committee expects to go into executive session again to discuss the matter further, she said.
Of the letter from the Egremont Board of Selectmen stating that the town would withhold payments to Southern Berkshire, Silvers said it would be referred to the legal counsel.
“I don’t care if Egremont beats me up on it,” Silvers said. “Those [lead] numbers say the children should not be in the building.”
For his part, Sears said he sits on two key subcommittees: finance and policy. And he’s involved in several others. In addition, he has taken the lead in discussions with other districts about sharing services, consolidations and mergers.
Sears has also represented the school committee on Southern Berkshire Educational Futures, a group formed last year to explore the future of South County’s public schools, whether it be in the form of mergers of shared services. Sears, a former IBM executive, is also a strong researcher, Silvers said.
“It almost wouldn’t be fair for me to step aside,” said Sears, who was first elected to the school committee in 2008.
Sears said if Egremont fails to make its next payment to the district, then “we could bring some legal action and go after the money. It would not be in Egremont’s interest to do it.” Sears added that state officials have told him Egremont “would be creating problems for themselves. And the [state] Department of Revenue would cast an unfriendly eye on it.”
Schroepfer is currently on the school committee, having been appointed this spring after the death of Bob Law. Schroepfer has children in the district and is director of production and preservation at the Mahaiwe Center for the Performing Arts in Great Barrington. He and his family relocated to Sheffield in 2014 in part because of the great things they had heard about the Southern Berkshire School District.
“In the past four years I have become active in the community and became interested in the direction of our district,” Schroepfer said in an email. “I started attending school committee meetings and spoke with other parents, educators, school committee members, and community members to try and understand the challenges and opportunities our unique district faced.”
Schroepfer is convinced that Southern Berkshire is “at a critical point … and many tough choices will need to be made in the coming years. We need to have direct and frank conversations about what we want our schools to be and how the five towns will support the financial needs of the district while respecting the ability of the taxpayers to fund those needs.”
Bruno is a teacher and administrator who has almost completed a doctorate in curriculum and instruction leadership at Northeastern University. He currently teaches special education at Housatonic Valley Regional High School, which is part of the Region One School District in Falls Village, Conn. He also has budgeting experience in previous positions he held in the Boston area. Click here to read his prepared candidate profile.
Bruno grew up in Northampton. He and his wife moved to Sheffield two years ago and have three young children ages three to eight. Two attend district schools. Like Schroepfer, one of the reasons Bruno and his family moved to Sheffield was because the district’s reputation preceded itself.
“We spent lots of time out here in the Berkshires and were looking for school systems to put our kids in,” Bruno said. “We liked what we saw and heard in Southern Berkshire. I had colleagues and alumni in the Boston area who recommended it was as well.”
Bruno started watching some of the school committee meetings online and thought, “Who are these people? Most of them don’t have children or family in the district. I thought, ‘What was the investment here?'”
Bruno didn’t like what he was hearing. He saw a “lack of engagement” and “a need for more openness.”
“They tried to close a school without engaging the community,” Bruno said. “I’m a fan of keeping the elementary schools open in talks about consolidation. Those elementary schools can be the heart and soul of a town or village.”
But Bruno prefers finding ways to boost the district’s enrollment over consolidation, though he says they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Of Stewart’s late-stage write-in candidacy in Alford, Bruno said, “Maybe they’re seeing the writing on the wall. There’s a new group coming in with a new agenda.”
In Alford and now running against fellow write-in candidate Stewart is Blaugrund, an entrepreneur and founder and CEO of Braise Worthy, a company based in Great Barrington that offers locally sourced frozen meals. Click here to see Blaugrund’s LinkedIn profile. He and his wife have a young child in the district.
Blaugrund made the decision to run two weeks ago, in part because, “As parents we knew it was important for the position to be filled.” Stewart, he said, encouraged him to run.
Like Silvers, Blaugrund is skeptical of the regional planning commission’s enrollment projections. He noted a “baby boom” recently at Fairview Hospital and that a one-room schoolhouse such as the one in Egremont could be “a real draw.”
Blaugrund said a candidate forum was held on campus Monday afternoon at the request of the union representing the district’s teachers. He said it was clear that some teachers were upset with the way they’ve been treated over the past year and that both the administration and the school committee needed to do a better job of listening.
“One thing that was clear to me at candidates’ forum is that people would like to see more [school committee] members with kids in the district,” Blaugrund said. “They, too, have a wealth of knowledge, so no matter what, we will still have a legacy of knowledge on the board.”
Like Bruno, Blaugrund is open to potential consolidation with other districts but first would like to see an emphasis on attracting more families to the district or students from other districts who could “tuition-in” through public school choice.
Of unexpectedly finding himself running against Stewart, Blaugrund said: “I was a little surprised when I heard it. I appreciate the work that Carl has done over the last decade and I think in a lot of ways I agree with his approach of financial sustainability and the need for consolidation. Where I differ is we really need to look at the jewels that distinguish our district as a calling card … I’m committed to a dialogue about how we keep all these schools open.”
With the empty Egremont school, there is only one so-called “outlying” school functioning in the district, New Marlborough Central School. The community schools in Monterey and Alford were closed years ago.
Running unopposed for school committee member in Egremont, also as a write-in candidate, is Kenneth Knox, an assistant professor of Mathematics at Simon’s Rock who was appointed earlier this year to fill the unexpired term of his predecessor. Click here to read his LinkedIn profile.
Knox made it clear that he does not approve of the actions of the Egremont Board of Selectmen in voting to withhold payments to the district until the program is moved back into the South Egremont School.
“All it will do will provide aggravation and agitation,” Knox said. “If the goal is to open it as soon as possible, stopping payment will literally slow down the process. The school committee will have to take the time to respond and will take more time to resolve this.”
Knox moved to Berkshire County in July 2016, to take the position at Simon’s Rock and just got married this past June. He, too, has an open mind about consolidating with other districts.
“We can and should think about it now,” Knox said. “It’s not clear how much money it will save. We’re already pretty lean.”
Of the situation with the lead in the South Egremont School, Knox said, “Certain steps must be followed. We’ve got to work together as a community. We need to move forward on remediation.”
Also running unopposed but on the ballot in New Marlborough is retired educator Jane Burke, the former head of the Flying Cloud Institute. Burke was traveling in Europe but did send the Edge a statement. Click here to read it.
It does appear that a generational challenge is in the offing for the Nov. 6 elections. A flyer distributed throughout the district refers to a “clean slate for SBRSD school committee” and flatly states that “the candidates support the right of all the towns to have their elementary schools.”
Blaugrund and Bruno are in their 40s. Knox is 35. Stewart, Sears and Silvers are in their 70s. Stay tuned.
See image below of the “Clean Slate for SBRSD School Committee” flyer superimposed on a specimen ballot for Sheffield: