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Citing empathy with Egremont, Monterey sends SBRSD budget to districtwide defeat

Monterey's "future probably lies in leaving the district," not only because of the town's dissatisfaction with Southern Berkshire but because 46 percent of the town's students are choicing out to other districts anyway. -- Kenn Basler, chair of Monterey Board of Selectmen

Monterey — Buffeted by criticism of its closing of two community schools, the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee has suffered a stinging defeat.

The district’s proposed budget for next year was soundly defeated in Monterey at Saturday’s annual town meeting (May 6). Coupled with the defeat of the school district assessment in Egremont last week, the district’s spending plan is thereby rejected, according to the district agreement requiring four of five member towns to adopt it, even though the plan was narrowly approved in Sheffield and New Marlborough. The annual town meeting in Alford, the district’s fifth town, isn’t until May 9.

SBRSD closed the Monterey School last year. Photo: David Scribner
SBRSD closed the Monterey School last year. Photo: David Scribner

“This was a very heavy rejection,” said Kenn Basler, who chairs the Monterey Select Board. “But this was not a vote against public education or quality; it was a vote on process.”

Both the Monterey Select Board and the town Finance Committee were on record on the eight-page warrant as disapproving of the district’s $16 million budget, an increase of only about half a percent over last year. Monterey, one of the smallest towns in the district, would have been assessed a little more than $1.5 million for approximately 80 students — about $79,000 more than last year — to fund its share of the district’s operating and capital costs.

Basler said the moderator did not bother to ask for a paper ballot count since it was obvious by a show of hands that an overwhelming majority of those present had voted down the education budget. He guesses between 80 and 90 percent of those present voted against funding the town’s share of the school budget.

At issue was not so much the size of the budget — though the rise in the town’s share was a factor — but ill will towards the regional School Committee over how it has handled the suspension of operations at the South Egremont School. In its budget proposal, the committee failed to include funding for the school.

The South Egremont school has one teacher, who is set retire at the end of the year, which apparently made the decision to suspend operations there easier. The school costs only about $100,000 per year to operate. However, there are 15 students, seven of whom choice in from other districts.

The Egremont closure follows a similar suspension of operations the School Committee executed last year with the Monterey School. The Egremont closure also prompted a legal action against the district last month by the town of Egremont alleging the School Committee failed to follow proper procedure, as required by the district agreement.

“We felt there was no due process for Egremont on the closing of that school,” Basler told The Edge. “There is a specific process for closing it. There were no proper communications … [there was] a real arrogance with School Committee and how they approached it.”

The Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee discusses its proposed budget at its April 27 meeting in Sheffield. From left, Superintendent David Hastings, Chairman Carl Stewart, and members Bonnie Silver, Marcella Bush and Dennis Sears. Photo: Terry Cowgill
The Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee discusses its proposed budget at its April 27 meeting in Sheffield. From left, Superintendent David Hastings, Chairman Carl Stewart, and members Bonnie Silvers, Marcella Bush and Dennis Sears. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Contacted by The Edge, School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart issued a statement: “I do think that the vote in both Egremont and Monterey had very little, if anything, to do with the amount of the budget. In Monterey, it was pretty clear that they were siding with Egremont and making a political statement in doing that.”

Basler was clear: He said Monterey is “asking [the School Committee] to reinstate funding for the Egremont School.”

Marcella Bush, who represents Egremont on the School Committee, said she favors a middle ground. Since the historic two-room South Egremont School is scheduled to undergo $250,000 in renovations and repairs, Bush said suspending operations in the school and relocating its students to the Mount Everett campus makes sense, at least until those students can return to the tiny schoolhouse after construction is completed.

“We knew the school needed major repairs,” Bush said. “You can’t put kids in a [very small] school when there’s construction.”

Basler said Monterey’s “future probably lies in leaving the district,” not only because of the town’s dissatisfaction with Southern Berkshire but because 46 percent of the town’s students are choicing out to other districts anyway.

Egremont Board of Selectman Chairman Charles Flynn, former member of the SBRSD School Committee. Photo: Terry Cowgill
Egremont Board of Selectman Chairman Charles Flynn, former member of the SBRSD School Committee. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Charlie Flynn, who chairs the Egremont Board of Selectmen and until recently represented the town on the School Committee, said he agreed with the taxpayers of Monterey.

“The School Committee never took the initiative to come to Egremont and speak to us about putting the school on hiatus,” Flynn said in an interview. “They basically said, ‘We’ve made this decision and we’re going to ram it down your throats and not adhere to the school agreement.’ ”

For his part, Stewart had strong words for some of those who voted against the school budget just to send a message: “Nothing will necessarily change about the school system and its funding for the coming year except that we now know that some, if not much, of the claim of some town leaders that they value education is simply not true. Charlie Flynn, the self-proclaimed leader of the revolt, says that he is in favor of education in the SBRSD but I disagree. The only thing he is in favor of is Charlie Flynn.”

The district’s budget proposal saw some controversy this year, even before it was rejected by Egremont and Monterey. At its April 27 meeting, the committee was peppered with questions from parents and teachers about a series of budget cuts announced by Superintendent David Hastings in an email only that afternoon.

Hastings’ late email again prompted complaints from parents and teachers about a lack of communication. However, Stewart explained that the late notice was necessary because so-called “impact bargaining,” which had been conducted in executive session with labor unions, had only been recently completed.

Of particular concern to parents was the proposed reduction of the full-time elementary school Spanish teacher, Susana Mapstone, to 0.8. Several elementary school teachers and parents complained, with one insisting that “our system of checks and balances is broken.”

Parent Mariana Cicerchia of Great Barrington appeals to the School Committee not to reduce the full-time elementary Spanish position. Photo: Terry Cowgill
Parent Mariana Cicerchia of Great Barrington appeals to the School Committee not to reduce the full-time elementary Spanish position. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“My kids are here because you have a Spanish program,” said Mariana Cicerchia, whose children choice in from Great Barrington. “Having a native speaking teacher like señora Mapstone will be impossible when you have it at .8. You’ll get an inexperienced teacher or someone else until they can get a full-time job somewhere else.”

In the end, the School Committee voted unanimously to restore funding for the full-time Spanish teacher, which caused spontaneous applause to erupt in the Mount Everett library.

The next scheduled meeting of the School Committee is May 25. Bush said she favors a special meeting before then to talk about where to go with the budget from here. Stewart told the Edge he had not yet made a decision on whether to call a special meeting.

“At the end of the day it comes down to lack of communication,” Bush said. “That South Egremont School is a huge asset to the community. It’s a draw for young couples, but it’s got to be financially stable.”

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