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Southern Berkshire School District eyes closing Monterey School — again

The Monterey School is one of three one-room schoolhouses remaining in Massachusetts: "It’s really simple. This is not a political decision, or even financial. It’s purely an educational decision." -- Carl Stewart, chairman of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee, on the proposed closing of the Monterey Village School.

Monterey — Facing a miniscule enrollment of possibly one or two students for the next school year, the town’s one-room schoolhouse — one of three left in the state — may be suspended if the Southern Berkshire Regional School District’s (SBRSD) School Committee decides to do so.

It is unclear whether the Monterey School, which provides an early and regular kindergarten program, will be shut permanently, since the regional agreement between Monterey, Egremont, Sheffield, New Marlborough, and Alford says four out of the five towns must agree to do so at their annual town meetings.

Southern Berkshire Superintendent David Hastings at left; School Committee chair Carl Stewart at right during a recent School Committee meeting. Photo: David Scribner
Southern Berkshire Superintendent David Hastings at left; School Committee chair Carl Stewart at right during a recent School Committee meeting. Photo: David Scribner

On Monday, January 18, Superintendent David Hastings wrote a letter to the Monterey Selectboard (see copy of letter below), explaining that based on enrollment information gathered by an early education task force, one that relied on census data, he would not budget for a teacher or aide for the school, which costs about $120,000 annually to run. He wrote that he would present these findings and his conclusion to the school committee at its February 11 meeting. He also wrote that district parents are “pleased with the education at New Marlborough Central School,” which is nearest to Monterey and has absorbed those students. Hastings said the district will give priority enrollment at New Marlborough to students from those two towns.

He also presented his plan to the Monterey Selectboard earlier this week.

“I can’t staff a building for two kids,” Hastings told the Edge. “There were no children there this year.”

“It’s not a simple solution,” he added, noting that the regional agreement allows each town to have its own school. “These are my plans but the school committee can tell me to scrap them.”

He said the school committee had set aside $10,000 to match Monterey funds to repair the schoolhouse, which the town owns. The Selectboard, he said, opted not to do the work until more discussions were had.

Monterey Selectboard Chair Scott Jenssen said the board hasn’t had a chance to come up with a formal statement yet. “We’re just absorbing it ourselves at this point,” he said.

The Monterey Village School on Route 23, up the hill beyond the Monterey General Store and the town library. Photo: David Scribner
The Monterey Village School on Route 23, up the hill beyond the Monterey General Store and the town library. Photo: David Scribner

But Jenssen was not pleased, saying the move might be “some type of end-run around closure.” He said he wanted to look at the regional agreement again, and said there is a protocol for closing a school that involves four out of five towns agreeing to it.

“I am extremely disappointed in the decision not to staff it and put a program back in,” he added. “This might be a loophole to eventually shut it for good. We can say we don’t have enough kids. But it’s up to district, and they can dictate where kids go. They need to promote it like they promote any program.”

Jenssen says he understands the county-wide issue of population, and enrollment decline, that has school districts in rural Berkshire County scrambling to balance high-level education and financial stability.

“There’s viability,” he said. “We will eventually have to succumb, but we don’t think its time yet…[SBRSD] might be succumbing to political pressure from outside our town.” He said Egremont, also one of three towns in the state with a one room schoolhouse, has always supported Monterey in keeping the school open. “They think they’re next in the crosshairs.”

Jenssen, who owns a building company, also pointed out that Monterey is always “supportive of every [district] project.”

“We’ve never balked at any [financial] requests. We hung tight with Sheffield over this last assessment thing, and we want our sister towns to respect our needs as we do theirs — it’s all part of being a district.” He said he will attend the next school committee meeting and “listen.”

School Committee member and Egremont Selectboard member Charlie Flynn agrees with Jenssen that the district should draw students into the schoolhouse, which he says is invaluable in this dark education era of testing and state mandates. Flynn, a former career naval officer and educator who told The Edge he was a Republican, says money spent keeping children in their towns is an investment, and there needs to be more “vision” into the future.

Kids at recess on the Monterey School playground
Kids at recess (with parent) on the Monterey School playground.

“If we don’t, the population in Monterey will continue to age,” he said. “We’re looking at how to cut services to our children while meeting the needs of our aging population. But schools are where we train our future taxpayers. Do we have an environment where they will stay? How do we attract young families? I think we’re making a huge mistake not focusing on how best to reach our young children.”

“You can’t effectively teach one or two students,” said school committee chair Carl Stewart, noting that it is the parents who have opted to enroll their children at New Marlborough. “There are very few educators who think you can have a viable program at that age level. It’s really simple. This is not a political decision, or even financial. It’s purely an educational decision.” He said eventually, Monterey parents “will not think of that school as being part of the educational programs for their children.”

Stewart, an Alford-based attorney who also sits on the Berkshire County Education Task Force, says this is happening all over the country. “Really small schools are not viable in terms of money, transportation and education,” Stewart said, noting that 100 years ago there were 100,000 one-room schoolhouses in the country. Now there are between 100 and 200.

The Task Force, he said, is looking at the big picture of education and how it is structured in the county, and batting around ideas for how to deal with a declining population.

But Flynn, who grew up in Housatonic, is tenacious on the subject. “The problem is that we have no leadership, no vision, on how best to provide education to children,” he said. “Instead of going in and seeing what can be, we saw what can’t be.” He said there were places in the school budget where other cuts could be made.

“We’ve got to get away from the pragmatism, and we’ve got to get back into idealism,” Flynn added. “This is coming from a Republican. We have to invest in our kids.”

________

Below is the text of the letter from Superintendent Hastings to the Monterey Selectboard:

January 18, 2016

Town of Monterey

Monterey Select Board

435 Main Road, PO Box 308

Monterey, MA 01245

Dear Select Board Members:

I am writing to follow up on the information already provided you from the district’s Early Childhood Committee (ECC) along with my plans for the Monterey School in the 2016-17 school year. The ECC [See copy of their January 15, 2016 report below.] researched census and enrollment data and discussed the pedagogy behind early childhood education and the developmental needs of the Monterey children in the 2016-17 school year. The committee also discussed that developmentally, children need opportunities to play and socialize with other children in groups in order to be prepared for school experiences as they get older, both for social and academic reasons.

There is no question that the Monterey School has been the home for outstanding educational experiences for young children for decades. Based on the research and the data, however, I believe that one or two families, at most, would register their children for an Early Kindergarten/Kindergarten program at the Monterey School during the March registration. For pedagogical and enrollment reasons, I do not plan on placing a teacher or aide in the Monterey School in the 2016-17 school year. I will present this plan to the School Committee at its February 11, 2016 meeting.

Monterey students and families have found a rich, warm, welcoming, and supportive learning environment in the New Marlborough Central School this year and in past years. The research and our communication with parents have shown that families are very pleased with the education at New Marlborough Central. My commitment to our families is that Monterey and New Marlborough students have priority in placement in New Marlborough Central, and will be enrolled before students from other SBRSD communities or any families requesting to “choice-in.” There is sufficient room for in-district or out-of-district choice students at Undermountain Elementary. Currently, there is sufficient space to accommodate all in-district families requesting placement at New Marlborough Central.

The district’s 2016 budget continues to include the $10,000 in matching funds for improvements and repairs to the Monterey School and this money is still available.

Should you have questions, please feel free to call me at 413-229-8778, ext. 302.

Sincerely,

David B. Hastings

Superintendent of Schools

 *     *     *

Report of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District Early Childhood Committee:

January 15, 2016

Early Childhood Committee Research and Data Summary Regarding the Monterey School

Current Monterey Census

  • Six (6) students residing in Monterey will be eligible for Kindergarten in the 2016-17 school year.
    • Three (3) of the six are currently enrolled in New Marlborough Central School programs (PK/EK).
    • One student of the six is enrolled at Undermountain Elementary.
  • One (1) additional student, not currently enrolled in a district Pre-K class, will be eligible for Early Kindergarten in the 2016-17 school year.
  • Note: For students requiring special services, these are provided at both New Marlborough Central and Undermountain Elementary.
  • Monterey families that transferred children to New Marlborough Central for the 20152016 school year have not expressed any concerns to the staff about their education beyond desiring assurance that they will continue to receive priority enrollment at New Marlborough Central along with the children of New Marlborough families.

New Marlborough Central School census: Kindergarten and Early Kindergarten potential enrollment

  • Seven (7) students are currently enrolled in the New Marlborough Central Pre-K program; these children will all be eligible for Early Kindergarten in the 2016-17 school year and will be placed in the New Marlborough Central class.
  • Four (4) students, residing in Monterey, are not currently enrolled in the district.
  • Ten (10) students from New Marlborough will be eligible for Early Kindergarten and Kindergarten in the 2016-17 school year.
  • If all students eligible for EK/K in the 2016-17 school year, residing in Monterey and New Marlborough, were to register in the district, the enrollment would be 21 students in EK-K. The committee’s best guess, however, is that the EK-K class would have 18 students.
    • This assumes that the class would remain an EK-K class. There are other potential groupings, which are looked at each year. 

Pre-Kindergarten Program Accreditation Requirements (Sandi Hubbard):

Though the SBRSD cannot operate a childcare program, the Early Childhood Committee was asked to research requirements for a building to house a Pre-K or Childcare program (the School Committee, and Superintendent Hastings had indicated to the Monterey Selectboard that the district would, as a courtesy, endeavor to find this information).

Sandi Hubbard, Director of Student Services and Chair of the Early Childhood Committee, contacted NAEYC (the accreditation organization for Pre-K programs) in the hope of having an inspector visit the Monterey school to provide detailed information on the requirements for a building to house a Pre-K and/or Childcare program. According to the representative that Ms. Hubbard spoke with, NAEYC does not send out representatives to just look at space until there is a specific request for accreditation of a program. Ms. Hubbard, however, researched the requirements from not only NAEYC, but also the Department of Early Education and Care, agencies that both license the Pre-K and Childcare programs and discovered the following information.

  • The outside space requirements: The outside play area must be free from hazards, including location to a main roadway/street and the Department of Public Safety must certify that the building complies with all codes (including fire codes) and that the facilities are safe, in good repair, and free from hazards. A double barrier must be in place between outside play area and road.

Indoor Space requirements: There must be a minimum of 35 square feet of activity space per child, not including bathrooms, hall space, etc. and a designated kitchen space. Exits and evacuation routes must be in full compliance with EEC and state regulations. Child size bathrooms must be in place and the building must be free of any chipping/peeling paint in and out.

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