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School Committee chairman’s closed-door meeting with district selectmen addresses village school dispute, rejected budget

The latest move by the school committee was to hold a closed-door meeting of invited guests Tuesday morning in the Eagle's Loft meeting room at Mount Everett Regional School.

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to reflect new information from Bruce Turner and Mary Brazie.

Sheffield — In its quest to pass a budget and head off a lawsuit from a member town, the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee finds itself on the horns of a dilemma.

Southern Berkshire Regional School District Superintendent David Hastings, left, and school committee Chairman Carl Stewart.
Southern Berkshire Regional School District Superintendent David Hastings, left, and school committee Chairman Carl Stewart.

On the one hand, the committee wants its $16 million budget to pass, yet it decided earlier this month to send the same budget back to voters and not include funding for the two closed community schools, despite a strong desire on the part of the two towns that rejected the budget to reinstate the funding.

On the other hand, the committee wants to avoid a protracted and costly court battle coming from the town of Egremont, which filed a legal complaint against the district seeking an injunction and alleging improper procedure on the part of the school committee in failing to fund the South Egremont Village School, effectively closing it at the end of the current school year.

The latest move by the School Committee was to hold a closed-door meeting of invited guests Tuesday morning in the Eagle’s Loft meeting room at Mount Everett Regional School. School committee Chairman Carl Stewart, who was the only School Committee member in the room, acknowledged to The Edge that the meeting took place but otherwise declined to comment because the public was not invited.

Stewart had announced at the committee’s May 25 meeting that he anticipated there would be a “meeting in very near future with or among” the chairmen of the boards of selectmen of the five member towns.

“I’m cautiously optimistic something positive will come of it,” he had said at the time. “This [will] not [be] an open meeting for obvious reasons.”

Egremont Selectboard Chairman Bruce Turner. Photo: David Scribner
Egremont Selectboard Chairman Bruce Turner. Photo: David Scribner

Sources have told The Edge that the top priority at Tuesday morning’s meeting was to smooth things over in Egremont. In addition to Egremont, selectboard Chairman Kenn Basler represented Monterey, which also rejected the district’s budget and is still smarting over the school committee’s decision to suspend operations at the town’s community school last year.

Bruce Turner, who chairs the Egremont board of selectmen, was present at the meeting. Newly elected Selectman George McGurn appeared at the meeting until Turner arrived, at which point McGurn left the room, Turner told the Edge.

The issue of whether McGurn attended is important because it would mean that two of three Egremont selectmen were present, which would have constituted a quorum.

At any rate, Egremont Selectman Mary Brazie told The Edge a scheduled special meeting of the Egremont Board of Selectmen was posted at Town Hall Thursday afternoon for Tuesday, May 30, at 10 a.m. at Mount Everett Regional School, which is the date and time of Stewart’s meeting. If two Egremont selectmen had indeed attended, last week’s posting would appear to satisfy the state’s Open Meetings Law requirement that meetings of boards and commissions be posted at least 48 hours in advance. The posting did not mention the possibility of an executive session.

Richard Allen, a Libertarian-leaning retired New York City attorney who lives in Egremont, said he tried to attend but was ejected.

Newly elected Egremont Selectman George McGurn.
Newly elected Egremont Selectman George McGurn.

“Turner and Brazie had decided not to attend but when they found out that McGurn might. Turner showed up unexpectedly,” Allen told The Edge. “I was ousted from the meeting because Turner objected to my being there.” Allen added that McGurn did not attend the Tuesday morning meeting.

Brazie said Turner was not accompanied by Town Counsel Jeremia Pollard or Ken Gogel, the attorney representing Egremont in its lawsuit against the district.

Stewart said Tuesday, “It is likely that there will be a special meeting of the school committee prior to the next scheduled meeting on June 8.” But at that time, he could not yet say what the purpose would be.

Former Egremont School Committee representative Charlie Flynn, who was recently defeated by McGurn for re-election to the Board of Selectmen and wants the school to remain open, told The Edge he would hesitate to go to such a meeting, “especially one convened by Carl when Carl didn’t even have the courtesy to attend a meeting of our [selectboard] over a month ago when we asked him to.”

Former Egremont selectman and school committee member Charlie Flynn.
Former Egremont selectman and school committee member Charlie Flynn.

Egremont resident Susan Bachelder, who chairs the town’s historical commission, voted against the budget and is a staunch opponent of closing the South Egremont Village School. In a written statement, she said, if McGurn was present at Tuesday’s meeting, he had no business “to negotiate on Egremont’s behalf” and any effort to do so “is illegal in my opinion.”

“Contracts, when broken, require legal recourse,” Bachelder said, referring to the lawsuit’s assertion about the procedure for closing schools enunciated in the district agreement among towns. “The law is what we have to protect these rights. Abuse by ‘those who know better,’ and therefore choose to act outside of the law, break the law.”

But amid the political jockeying and intrigue, the district’s fiscal future remains uncertain. The two towns that rejected the school district budget outright, Egremont and Monterey, have 45 days from last Thursday, when the school committee endorsed the same budget that failed, to hold special town meetings to vote on the school budget again. If the towns fail to hold special meetings, then they are deemed to have approved it by virtue of their failure to act.

The same budget would not have to be voted on by the taxpayers of either Alford or Sheffield since both of those towns have already approved it. New Marlborough passed its share of the school district’s budget but a Proposition 2½ override failed, which effectively defeated the budget there.

However, school committee member Dennis Sears, who chairs the district’s finance subcommittee, said he had obtained an opinion from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that New Marlborough’s share of the school district budget had effectively passed in spite of the defeat of the override.

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

In Sheffield, where the school district budget passed narrowly, some residents have since become upset at a change in transportation policy, announced by the district administration after the budget vote in that town, that will eliminate direct bus transportation for New Marlborough Central School students except for those residing in New Marlborough or Monterey. Last week, the school committee signaled its intent to restore funding for the transportation by finding money elsewhere in its budget.

On Wednesday, an agenda for a special meeting scheduled for Friday, June 2, at 1 p.m. was posted on the district website. The only agenda item is a closed-door session “to discuss strategy with respect to litigation (Egremont vs. SBRSD).” There are no plans to return to public session.

Meanwhile, a hearing for the injunction sought by the town of Egremont in the lawsuit is scheduled for Thursday, June 15, at 2 p.m. at Berkshire Superior Court in Pittsfield.


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