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New SBRSD busing policies may undermine New Marlborough Central School enrollment

The School Committee has insisted the Monterey and Egremont schools were not closed, but that their operations were temporarily suspended or put "on hiatus." But others see the busing policy as a tactic to cripple enrollment at New Marlborough Central in order to close it.

Sheffield — A transportation policy change affecting students attending New Marlborough Central School has caused a stir in Sheffield and Egremont and prompted some to question the Southern Berkshire Regional School District’s motives and even the legality of its actions.

In an email sent to parents Tuesday (May 23), Superintendent David Hastings told NMCS parents that next year only students residing in New Marlborough or Monterey will be provided with direct transportation to NMCS.

“Parents residing outside New Marlborough or Monterey wishing their children to continue at New Marlborough Central will either need to carpool, or bring their children to a New Marlborough bus stop, providing that there is room on that bus,” Hastings wrote.

New Marlborough Central School. Photo: Terry Cowgill
New Marlborough Central School. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Hastings quickly added that, “Affected New Marlborough Central School parents wishing home-to-school bus transportation would need to transfer to Undermountain Elementary.”

Both Hastings and School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart declined to comment when contacted by The Edge, so it’s not clear why the move was made. Was it an effort to save money? Is it related to the fact that the district’s longtime bus contractor, the Ormsbee Bus Company, will cease operations? And that the sole bidder for the new transportation contract, the Massini Bus Company in Sheffield, has demanded a $750,000 increase in next year’s transportation budget line? Or are there other reasons?

Elisa Jones lives in the Ashley Falls section of Sheffield with her husband and two young children. One is a second-grader at New Marlborough and she had planned to enroll another child in pre-k in the fall. Since the pre-k program is only half-day, Jones would have to arrange for three round trips per day.

“Our plans will have to change,” Jones told The Edge. “With myself and my husband working, there is no feasible way to go to the school three times a day.” Jones added that she was “extremely disappointed and frustrated that this came out when it did … they’ve known they had a bus problem for some time.”

Jones says she suspects the district is trying to lower enrollment at NMCS so that it can be closed, or put “on hiatus,” as the community schools in Monterey and Egremont were.

Superintendent David Hastings (left), and SBRSD School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart. Photo: David Scribner
Superintendent David Hastings (left), and SBRSD School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart. Photo: David Scribner

“My personal feeling is they are trying to make it difficult to attend,” Jones continued. “Then they can use it as leverage to say, ‘Why are we continuing to fund this school if there are not enough kids?’ ”

According to the SBRSD website, NMCS has between 75 and 85 students in grades pre-k to four. The red-brick schoolhouse was built in 1932 and has multi-age classrooms, project-based learning, and frequent all-school exhibitions and gatherings. NMCS hosts annual events like the Harvest Supper and Family Literacy Day, which demonstrate “parent and school involvement and community building,” the district website says.

Both Jones and other parents say NMCS turned away some students at the beginning of the year because the school was full.

Another Sheffield parent who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic told The Edge there had been rumors circulating for weeks about the bus situation to New Marlborough.

The parent had high praise for NMCS, lauding its “sense of community that is really positive for my children. I love the building and the staff … It’s a really good program — unique in this area, with a smaller school building, along with a smaller staff.”

“It does feel a little bit like the process is becoming harder for students because they want all the kids to go to Undermountain,” the parent said. “I live in Ashley Falls. I don’t want to send my kids to Undermountain.”

The much larger Undermountain Elementary School is located on the campus of the Mount Everett Regional High School in Sheffield. The School Committee put the Monterey School on hiatus last year and has withheld funding for the South Egremont Village School for next year. That will leave NMCS as the only remaining active community school in the district.

Former Selectman and SBRSD School Committee member Charlie Flynn. Photo: David Scribner
Former Selectman and SBRSD School Committee member Charlie Flynn. Photo: David Scribner

Last month, the town of Egremont filed a lawsuit against the Southern Berkshire Regional School District seeking an injunction against the school committee’s action on the town’s community school.

The town alleges the committee’s actions run afoul of specific procedures for school closings outlined in the district agreement. A preliminary hearing will be held next week at Berkshire Superior Court in Pittsfield.

For its part, the School Committee has insisted the schools were not closed, but that their operations were temporarily suspended or put “on hiatus.”

Among those expected to testify at the hearing is former School Committee member Charlie Flynn, who chaired the Board of Selectmen when the suit was filed but has since been defeated in a re-election bid. Some of the students attending NMCS reside in Egremont.

“I’m surprised and shocked, but I agree with the parents,” Flynn said, referring to the parents interviewed by The Edge. “I think they hit the nail on the head. New Marlborough is [the School Committee’s] next target.”

Flynn also questioned whether the new transportation policy runs counter to the district agreement, which says that the district “shall arrange for necessary transportation for pupils from all member towns attending the Regional District schools under provisions of [Massachusetts General Law] and special acts.”

Undermountain Elementary School on the campus of Mt. Everett Regional High School in Sheffield. Photo: David Scribner
Undermountain Elementary School on the campus of Mt. Everett Regional High School in Sheffield. Photo: David Scribner

Egremont Town Counsel Jeremia Pollard, who drafted the complaint against the school district, told The Edge he has removed himself as counsel of record for the lawsuit because he also represents other towns in the district. He referred all questions to the new counsel for the lawsuit, Egremont-based attorney Ken Gogel, who could not be reached for comment.

Egremont resident Susan Bachelder, a staunch opponent of the closing of the Egremont school, also questioned the legality of the New Marlborough move.

“I would think this now forces any child in Sheffield or Egremont or Alford, for that matter, who might want to attend either the Egremont or New Marlborough schools to attend [Undermountain],” Bachelder told the Edge. “Again, it would appear in violation of the agreement but that is not surprising for this School Committee.”

Presumably, that topic and others will come up at the next meeting of the School Committee on Thursday, May 25, at 6 p.m. and at the hearing for the town of Egremont lawsuit on Tuesday, May 30, at 2 p.m. at Berkshire Superior Court in Pittsfield.

“I am sure they have some clever parsing of the agreement they will offer to justify this action,” Bachelder said of the School Committee.

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