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SBRSD budget in limbo: Egremonters want their school back

If district taxpayers refuse to authorize spending for the school district, the state has an elaborate system to ensure the district's continued operation.

 Sheffield — It’s back to the drawing board for the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee in its quest to find a spending package that passes muster with voters.

What happens to the budget of the district budget remains a mystery whose outcome will be determined in due time. Some of it should be cleared up after the committee’s Thursday, May 25 meeting at 6 p.m. in the Mount Everett Regional School Library.

But the consensus seems to be that the only way to get Egremont and Monterey to agree to fund their share will be for the School Committee to restore funding for the South Egremont Village School — or, at the very least, for the committee to visit the towns and listen to the concerns of parents and taxpayers before they are asked to vote on the budget a second time.

The South Egremont Village School, the center of a rift between town offices and the school committee. Photo: Terry Cowgill
The South Egremont Village School, the center of a rift between town offices and the school committee. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The district’s proposed budget for next year was soundly defeated in Monterey and Egremont at town meetings earlier this month but passed in the other three member towns. That means the budget fails because the district agreement requires that four of five member towns agree to fund their share of the spending package. So new town meetings must be held and more votes taken, making the future uncertain.

“I’ll tell you what they need to do to get the budget passed in Egremont,” said Charlie Flynn, a former member of the School Committee and, until earlier this month when he was defeated, a selectman. “They need to sit down with the Board of Selectmen in Egremont. In fact, they need to meet with all five Boards of Selectmen because [the School Committee] created this mess.”

It’s not the size of the proposed budget that’s the problem. The district’s $16 million budget represents an increase of only about half a percent over last year. The issue appears to be how the School Committee handled the closing of the community school this year in Egremont and last year in Monterey.

Former Egremont Selectman and School Committee member Charlie Flynn.
Former Egremont Selectman and School Committee member Charlie Flynn.

In its budget proposal for FY 2018, the committee failed to include funding for the Egremont school, prompting the Board of Selectmen to file a lawsuit seeking to reverse the action.

“The School Committee needs to ask people what they want,” Flynn continues. “It’s not going to be fun or comfortable. And I would bring in the new superintendent.” Flynn was referring to Beth Regulbuto, who is replacing the retiring David Hastings in July.

Flynn is convinced that his landslide defeat for re-election as a selectmen to newcomer George McGurn had far less to do with his vocal antipathy toward the School Committee’s decisions on the community schools than it did with his advocacy for a proposal, as chairman of the town technology committee, from Charter-Spectrum to wire Egremont for cable television and Internet.

Flynn’s former colleague on the Board of Selectmen, Mary Brazee, also voted against funding Egremont’s share of the school district budget and largely concurs with Flynn.

“They need to follow proper procedure if they’re going to close a school,” Brazee, who voted against the budget, said of the School Committee. “They should restore funding, then follow the procedures.”

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 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 those things happened, according to Egremont Town Counsel Jeremia Pollard. The School Committee has argued that no actual closings were performed but rather that the schools were being put “on hiatus” — which Pollard and Flynn have argued is a distinction without a difference.

SBRSD Superintendent David Hastings (left) and School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart.
SBRSD Superintendent David Hastings (left) and School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart.

Hastings declined to comment but Marcella Bush, who represents Egremont on the School Committee, acknowledged that the committee has to have “a little bit better communication.” Bush said she views the Egremont school situation as a “one-year hiatus.”

“I think once people in Egremont know that’s the situation and we’re not locking the doors, they’ll come around,” said Bush, who voted for the budget.

Bush also sits of the School Committee’s finance subcommittee, which met last Monday, May 15, to consider the budget rejection. At that meeting, School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart said he thought the $45,000 in the legal services line might not be sufficient with the ongoing legal action against the district taken by the town of Egremont. So it’s conceivable that the budget proposed for reconsideration could be even higher than the last one.

Susan Bachelder, with Selectman Mary Brazee at the desk.
Susan Bachelder, with Selectman Mary Brazee at the desk.

Susan Bachelder, who chairs the town Historical Commission, which secured about $75,000 from the state to renovate the historic 140-year-old building, voted against the budget. She is a staunch opponent of closing the school and was quite clear when asked what it would take to get the Southern Berkshire budget passed in Egremont.

“Have the budget reflect a program in the Egremont school,” replied Bachelder, who has volunteered in the past as a crossing guard for the school.

Asked if she thought there was any room for negotiation, Bachelder indicated she could be flexible on the timing of the reopening of the school. Bachelder has also insisted the school gives the town a sense of community and that it attracts families with young children to Egremont.

The Monterey School that SBRSD closed last year.
The Monterey School that SBRSD closed last year.

Bachelder had high praise for Monterey, which saw its own community school closed last year and rejected its share of the Southern Berkshire this year, mostly out of empathy for Egremont.

“Monterey has been so abused,” Bachelder said. “We appreciate their support.”

Stewart, the School Committee Chairman from Alford, declined to comment on what might be the committee’s next steps. But he said the law is quite clear on procedure.

“A higher budget would have to be resubmitted to all five towns at special town meetings called by them,” Stewart said in an email.

However, Stewart said, the same budget, or one with lower spending would not have to be voted on by the taxpayers of either Alford or Sheffield. New Marlborough passed its share of the school district’s budget but a Proposition 2½ override failed, which effectively defeated the budget there.

Stewart, who is also an attorney, further explained that a town that rejects a school budget has 45 days after the adoption of a revised budget by the School Committee to hold a special town meeting to vote on that budget.

“If a town elects not to have that meeting within the 45-day period, they are deemed to have approved the budget by not taking any action on it,” Stewart said. “So, it is possible for the new budget to pass without any further action by the towns.”

Indeed, if district taxpayers refuse to authorize spending for the school district, the state has an elaborate system to ensure the district’s continued operation.

If the district’s budget has not passed by July 1, “the commissioner sets an interim monthly budget, which is often — but not always — based on the previous year’s budget,” state education department spokesperson Jacqueline Reis told The Edge. “The interim budget remains in effect until the district passes an operating budget or Dec. 1, whichever comes first.”

If the district does not have a budget by Dec. 1, the state education commissioner will assume financial control of the district and set the budget for the remainder of the fiscal year.

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