Great Barrington Town Hall briefs

"In order to adopt [at the Annual Town Meeting] a formal requirement affecting a regional school district...an amendment of the applicable school district agreement would be required.” -- Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, reading from Town Counsel opinion

Petitions for school changes ‘Advisory Only’

Great Barrington — Five petitions submitted to the Town for inclusion on the May 4 Town Meeting warrant, and which pertain to the Berkshire Hills Regional School District’s finances and organization, can be inserted in the warrant, but are to be advisory only, according to the Town’s attorney.

Two of the petitions were submitted by former Selectboard member Andrew Moro; one requests that the district be required to report, in the town’s annual town report, all payments of $5,001 or greater. The other asks that the school budget be decided upon by the majority of the combined votes of all three towns in the district. Presently, one town’s vote can be bound to the other two towns’ votes.

The other three petitions were submitted by GB21 co-founders Karen Christensen, Ron Banks and Vivian Orlowski, and repeat sections of an original petition by the group.

Christensen’s petition requests “transparency on finances” from the district, asking for “openness, cooperation, and communication” with voters about financial matters, including submitting financial reports in a “timely and regular basis” to finance committees of the three towns and made available to the public. It also asks for a system of “accurate measurement” of operating and capital costs per student, and that smaller, urgent repairs to Monument Mountain Regional High School be undertaken right away with the use of local contractors.

It just so happens that the state agency overseeing municipal projects is holding a certification workshop for local contractors who want to learn how to bid on such projects, on March 18 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Great Barrington Fire Station.

Banks submitted a petition that asks for “equity among towns sending students to schools” in the district; and Orlowski, a petition requesting “proactive planning” that includes the community in developing a “Master Plan” for the district.

All five petitions have as little as two, and as many as eight signatures.

Selectboard members, from left, Deborah Phillips, Sean Stanton and Stephen Bannon. Photo: Heather Bellow
Selectboard members, from left, Deborah Phillips, Sean Stanton and Stephen Bannon. Photo: Heather Bellow

According to town counsel, said Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, all issues described in the petitions are governed by the school district’s regional agreement. Reading from town counsel’s opinion, Tabakin said that “in order to adopt a formal requirement affecting a regional school district…an amendment of the applicable school district agreement would be required.”

Selectboard member and School Committee Chair Stephen Bannon said the district has already begun the process of reviewing the district agreement between Stockbridge, West Stockbridge and Great Barrington. West Stockbridge is the only town that has not yet agreed to the formation of a review committee. Later, by phone Bannon said Superintendent Peter Dillon had met with the West Stockbridge Selectboard, which told him that “they are going to do more research and get back to us; they didn’t say no, but they are first going to talk to the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools (MARS).”

“Anytime citizens petitions are brought they should be reviewed,” Bannon said at the meeting, noting that he didn’t know the petitions were school related when he made the motion to have them reviewed. It would have been the case regardless, he said, since town counsel reviews every proposed item for the warrant before inclusion. “To me this is common sense,” Bannon added.

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Town urged to divest from fossil fuel companies

Stoller
350ma Berkshire County coordinator Gary Stoller. Photo: Heather Bellow

Great Barrington — Members of the Berkshire County chapter of the climate action group 350ma came to Monday night’s (February 23) Selectboard meeting to ask the board to pass a resolution urging the state pension fund to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The Selectboard voted unanimously to review and to create a resolution to be voted upon at the May 4 Town Meeting.

The goal is to make “Massachusetts the first state in the union to divest its pension funds of fossil fuel holdings,” said 350ma Berkshire County coordinator Gary Stoller, who went on to explain that of the $60 billion in the state pension fund, $1.6 billion is invested in fossil fuel companies.

The grassroots organization is supporting State Senator Benjamin Downing’s (D-Pittsfield) bill to divest public funds from such corporations. Stoller explained that the idea is to wean portfolios from those investments over a five-year period. In this case, the Pension Reserves Investment Trust (PRIT), which is the target of Downing’s legislation, would divest at a rate of 20-percent per year, and not purchase any new fossil fuel holdings, with a floor for a return decrease of 1.5 percent in which case, Stoller said “all bets are off,” and investments are “reformulated.”

The Berkshire County Retirement Fund invests with PRIT.

There is also a bill under consideration in the state House of Representatives by Rep. Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge).

350Mass works on a number of campaigns, all concerning climate change, including opposition of Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline, much of which will run through the state.

The point of 350Mass’s request, Stoller said, is about aligning with the principles of “clean energy and having the planet survive.”

He noted that 11 towns and municipalities have passed similar non-binding resolutions, including Boston, Cambridge, Truro, Provincetown and Amherst. Hampshire College has divested, and Williams College is in the process. A full list of organizations that have divested can be found at the 350 Mass website.

According to literature crafted by state Sen. Benjamin Downing and Rep. Decker, “independent studies by the Associated Press and several major asset management groups have shown that a carbon-free portfolio would have outperformed a standard portfolio over the past decade.”

“You can’t damage the fossil fuel industry by doing this,” Stoller said. The idea, he said is to “stigmatize these companies…like tobacco [companies] and apartheid” divestments.

“Even the Rockefellers are divesting.”