Amid the political intrigue and the rhetorical rockets fired by public officials and other interested parties, taxpayers in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District are faced with a sobering decision.
The district’s proposed budget for the 2017-18 academic year failed because two of the five members towns voted it down. Both Egremont and Monterey are aggrieved because the School Committee has opted to withdraw funding for their community schools, effectively shutting them down for the foreseeable future.
If the towns wanted to let well enough alone, they could decline to hold special town meetings and approve the budget by failing to act. But that seems unlikely. Indeed, on Monday, the Egremont Board of Selectmen, which is suing the district over the closing of its school, voted Monday to hold a special town meeting on June 22 to consider the school district budget.
School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart confirmed to The Edge that the committee met in a closed-door session last week and unanimously endorsed a proposed settlement with Egremont. For obvious reasons, Stewart declined to discuss the contents of the possible settlement. The Egremont selectmen then met Monday in executive session to discuss the settlement but did not speak publicly about it when they emerged from behind closed doors.
Now Sheffield might get into the act. That town narrowly approved the school budget but many residents have since become upset that the district decided not to provide direct transportation for Sheffield students to New Marlborough Central School, now the only remaining community school in the district. The School Committee is reconsidering that policy but it has done little to persuade cynics that the committee is trying to starve the beast at NMCS by directing students away from it and then citing declining enrollments as a reason to “suspend operations” there as well.
After listening to residents’ concerns Monday night, the Sheffield selectmen are considering holding a special town meeting to vote on the town’s share of the district’s latest budget proposal, even though it’s not necessary to do so because the town narrowly passed an identical school budget the first time. Might Sheffield hold a special town meeting just to defeat the budget to send a message of solidarity with Egremont and Monterey?
It certainly looks as if the district is struggling to maintain positive relations with its member towns. Two years ago, the School Committee was plunged into crisis because of an error by the business office in calculating how much each town owed to fund the district’s operations. The business administrator lost his job over the snafu and the three angry towns that were undercharged scrambled, along with the School Committee, to figure out how to deal with the situation.
And of course, the closing of the schools in Monterey and Egremont has angered parents and taxpayers in those towns who are convinced the School Committee acted improperly in failing to follow proper procedure in shuttering the schools. In addition, there is ample evidence that the small schools can have a positive effect on learning.
But the question facing voters in Egremont and Monterey (and quite possibly Sheffield) is how to vote a second time on the district’s $16 million budget proposal. We understand all too well the frustration of voters who are upset at the actions of the School Committee. But voting down the budget a second time will not undo the committee’s actions.
All a rejected budget will do is cause more chaos and quite possibly prompt the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to intervene and establish a spending plan to keep the district running until cooler heads prevail on the local level.
No, if you don’t like the actions of School Committee members, the best thing you can do is vote them out of office. Registering your disapproval of the budget again could invite state action and make the suits at DESE look like the grown-ups in the room. Is that what taxpayers want?