Egremont — In what could become a protracted legal battle to keep the only school within its border open for local students, the town of Egremont has filed a complaint against the Southern Berkshire Regional School District alleging the School Committee violated the district agreement in defunding the South Egremont School — an action town officials say will cause the building to be shuttered at the end of the school year.
The 26-page complaint, which includes three exhibits, was filed in Berkshire Superior Court April 13 by Town Counsel Jeremia Pollard of Hannon Lerner in Lee. The document, which Pollard said has not yet been served on the district, seeks an immediate and permanent injunction barring the district from “closing or suspending operations with respect to any district schools … until the district has performed all procedures required by the agreement for school closure.” The document stops just short of asking to leave the district.
In addition, the town seeks unspecified damages, the recovery of legal fees and “whatever additional relief [the court] deems appropriate.” The complaint further asks the court to consider the School Committee’s action to be a “material breach” and to grant the town the authority to enter into “tuition agreements with another district or districts.”
“They took a very abrupt action to close that school,” Charlie Flynn, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, said of the School Committee. “They’re obligated to keep it open unless they follow the district agreement.”
At issue is whether the School Committee is actually closing the South Egremont School or whether suspending operations constitutes a legal closing. The School Committee prefers the term “on hiatus.” Pollard and the selectmen believe otherwise.
The district agreement stipulates that if the School Committee wants to close a school, then a series of actions must occur: the district must provide at least 45 days notice before any School Committee vote on the closure; the School Committee must hold two public hearings on a proposed closure; and any closure must be put to a vote in the members towns and ratified by four of the five towns. None of these things happened, according to Pollard and Flynn.
In addition, as an exhibit in the complaint, Pollard attached a letter from Southern Berkshire Regional School District attorney Nancy J. Campany from Aug. 13, 2015, answering a request for legal advice regarding a similar suspension of operations the School Committee eventually executed with the Monterey School.
Campany opined that “temporarily suspending the Monterey elementary program would violate the terms of the regional agreement and would expose the district to a challenge of that action as contrary to the provisions of paragraph 3 of the existing Regional Agreement.”
“As you can see from the attachments, their own counsel told them that they could not legally close the school by using distinctions such as ‘suspending operations’ or the new term they are using, a ‘hiatus’,” Pollard told The Edge.
The Alford School House, which used to be part of the district, closed in 1992 and was later renovated and now houses the Alford Town Offices.
“That was done the proper way,” Flynn explained. “Alford volunteered to close it. They followed the protocol. The protocol with Monterey was not followed.”
Southern Berkshire School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart of Alford declined to comment. Superintendent David Hastings did not return a message seeking comment; nor did Marcella Medoro Bush, who represents Egremont on the School Committee.
Genis Melendez-Delaney was recently appointed to the School Committee to replace Selectman Flynn as the other Egremont representative. Flynn resigned from the School Committee a month ago, he told The Edge: “When they made their vote to place Egremont in hiatus, I knew we were going to take them to court. I knew I did not want to have that kind of conflict.”
In an interview, Melendez-Delaney told The Edge, “I don’t see the benefit of it,” referring to keeping the South Egremont School open. However, “some people in Egremont are very much in support of it. I get that. I don’t want to say ‘nostalgia,’ but it fits into the image and their concept of what their community should be and I can understand that.”
Since she is both an Egremont resident and a member of the School Committee, Melendez-Delaney described herself as “between a rock and hard place.” Melendez-Delaney, a retired longtime teacher and administrator in the New York City public schools, supports the closure of the South Egremont School but quickly added that, “What’s critical is if this was not done legally, then I would have to say I could not support it.”
In his complaint and attached as an exhibit, Pollard further took the School Committee to task for recently “disseminating false information” stating the South Egremont School “may not be open for the beginning of school due to construction.”
As support for seeking monetary damages, Pollard included the potential loss of a $50,000 grant for renovations from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, in the event the school is closed.
In an interview, Susan Bachelder, who chairs the town Historical Commission, said the three community school buildings — South Egremont, Monterey and New Marlborough — are owned by the individual towns but are supposed to be maintained by Southern Berkshire, as per the district agreement.
“Then under the terms of that agreement, the school district would take care of the property they use,” Bachelder explained.
Both Bachelder and Flynn said the town is putting its money where its mouth is by dedicating significant funds toward a South Egremont School renovation, expected to cost about $250,000, when the town is under no obligation to do so.
“Egremont determined it was going to assume the responsibility, when it wasn’t legally obliged to do so,” Bachelder said. “We went forward to make capital improvements to the school.”
“That’s why Egremont is in such good shape,” Flynn added. “We’re not a community looking for a handout. If it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, we’ll take care of it.”
Bachelder was chair of a review committee established when the district hired a firm to evaluate all buildings in the district. In December 2013, the town hired CME Architecture to perform a conditions assessment and to develop a treatment plan for the school building. The study was funded by the town in partnership with the Massachusetts Historical Commission through a $25,000 Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund grant, bringing the total state grant funds received for the project to $75,000, Flynn said.
“It’s still being used for a school,” Bachelder explained. “And it’s in the National Register Historic District.”
The study found that South Egremont is one of the last one-room schoolhouses in continuous operation in the nation. Built in 1880 in the village’s National Register Historic District, the single-story wood frame structure was built for utility and it has fulfilled its function well, the study said.
At the time, it was considered a state-of-the-art school room with large windows, facing south for maximum exposure to the sun. The school currently houses kindergarten and first grade in a single classroom with a multi-age grouping, which Flynn, a retired educator, said is a “home run” in terms of providing a good learning environment.
The South Egremont school only 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 state sets choice-in tuition at $5,000 per year per student, so the net cost of operating the school is $65,000. But critics say most of those choice students return to their home districts after the Egremont experience, which means Southern Berkshire taxpayers are effectively subsidizing those out-of-district students.
With dwindling enrollments, the movement to close schools in Berkshire County will likely continue. The Berkshire County Education Task Force, of which Stewart is a member, will likely recommend it. Most recently, a divided Adams-Cheshire Regional School Committee voted to close Cheshire Elementary School. As one might expect, the move created great controversy, especially among Cheshire residents.
Pollard says the complaint has not yet been served on the school district and but he is asking the district’s law firm to accept service.