LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — While there was some vigorous opposition in Lanesborough to the regionalization of schools with Williamstown, ultimately an overwhelming number of residents at Tuesday's special town meeting felt the plan was in the town's best interest.
"We have the best system in Berkshire County right now, three Level 1 schools, excellent educators, wonderful families in both communities that support education," said School Committee member PJ Pannesco, who has taught at Mount Greylock for decades and recalled times when students went to Pittsfield schools and when the town nearly closed down Lanesborough Elementary to join with Cheshire.
"This is like a marriage. We've been living together for many years and now we are going to make it official."
In relatively short order, the two towns decided to tie the knot in concurrent special town meetings.
Up the road in Williamstown, the motion carried by a strong voice vote with only a smattering of opposing voices after no comments from the floor by voters interested in speaking for or against the proposal.
The plan has been a long time coming and is eyed to both streamline operations and save the towns some money. The two elementary schools will now join into one district with Mount Greylock, eliminating such things as three separate school committees, sets of state filings, and shrink the number of union contracts.
But a sticking point for some in both towns was local control.
In Lanesborough, local control was a particular concern because it will be outnumbered on the regional School Committee and many feared that when push came to shove, Lanesborough students would take a backseat to the whims of the northern neighbors.
"I've seen what a 4-3 structure looks like for 25 years. The reason I am not in favor of this is that I've learned in the 25 years that the people in Williamstown are just like us," Mount Greylock teacher Larry Bell said, adding that if a conflict arises those Williamstown representatives will use that advantage to give the edge to their students, just as Lanesborough would do if the representation was the other way around.
He added, "in a normal regional school district you have to cooperate with at least one other town to carry a vote ... We are voting on a structure that allows one town to have control. We don't know what that is going to look like during a conflict down the road."
The agreement had taken precautions to provide local control, according to Lanesborough Elementary School Committee Chairwoman Regina DiLego. She said each town will be responsible for its own budget for the elementary school and that no school can be closed without both towns’ approvals.
"If either town votes no [on school closure], it is a dead issue. Nobody can close our school unless we want to close it," DiLego said.
The School Council will take on a stronger role in dictating what happens in the local school, she said, and the 4-to-3 representation model at the School Committee level is the option legally allowed that would give Lanesborough the most votes -- otherwise it would be by population, in which case Lanesborough would have just two seats.
As they are now on the existing Mount Greylock School Committee, all seven members will be elected by voters in both towns. The 4-3 split refers to the residency requirement for committee members.
Finance Committee member Ray Jones, however, said that still wasn’t enough. He said he's had issues with Williamstown over decisions at Mount Greylock and he doesn't want to lose any control.
"This is our building, these are our children. I want to be in control of our children, what they are learning, how much we are paying, and not have it be a 3-4 vote," Jones said.
Jones was in the minority of the Finance Committee though. That committee supported the regionalization effort by a 2-1 margin.
"I have been pushing for regionalization for a number of years. I think it is the best thing for education. We modified the agreement to keep local control here," Finance Committee member Ronald Tinkham said. "I see no downside to voting this. It is best for education."
Others, such as Prudy Barton, questioned whether the district can be expanded further. She cited shrinking enrollment throughout the county and said adding New Ashford and Hancock would make her feel better about the effort.
"Lanesborough, Williamstown is actually a small region," she said.
Others questioned the ability to leave the agreement, but there hadn't been a clear understanding of what is required. DiLego said the school's attorneys have read the agreement and said only the leaving town would need to vote. But, Town Council Jeffrey Blake read the agreement for the first time at town meeting and said both towns would need to agree.
Ultimately, the uncertainty didn't matter because the vote passed so easily. But, before the vote was taken, there was a close call on whether or not to go to a secret ballot. Resident Jennifer DeChaine motioned to have the vote be taken by secret ballot, and Moderator Robert Reilly had already been prepared if that was the case.
But by a 49-61 vote, town meeting ultimately decided to handle it by the traditional method of raising cards. The vote on the agreement passed without a hand count of the votes.
In Williamstown, they did not even need to count cards. After hearing no debate, Moderator Adam Filson called for a voice vote that could not have been much more clearly in favor.
Williamstown Elementary School Chairman Joe Bergeron introduced the motion to the meeting, noting that full regionalization, "streamlines governance and continues the cost savings the districts already have realized."
Joe Bergeron introduces the regionalization motion at Williamstown's special town meeting.
Afterward, Bergeron said he went to the meeting feeling good about the plan's chances, but he never anticipated such a speedy approval.
"I did not think it would be physically possible," Bergeron said. "But I felt good about all the info sessions we had, about all the support we heard, about the word on the street."
And he said he thought Monday's Board of Selectmen vote helped clarify the issue heading into Tuesday's meeting.
"The Board of Selectmen had taken the time to get get educated and understand the issues," Bergeron said. "I felt great coming out of that meeting."
But Bergeron already was looking ahead to Wednesday and yet another meeting — this time a formal vote to begin dissolving Superintendency Union 71, the union under which WES and LES currently share central administration services. SU71, which includes members of both elementary school committees, has a joint meeting planned with the Mount Greylock School Committee at 7 p.m. at the junior-senior high school.
"I'm simultaneously relieved that this push is over, but instantly on my mind is making sure we fulfill the opportunities that exist," Bergeron said.
He and his Lanesborough counterpart, Regina DiLego, took the lead last spring on modifying the proposed regional agreement to address some of the local control questions: specifically, altering the way preK-6 education is funded and adding language clarifying the role of the School Councils, among other changes to the proposal that came out of Mount Greylock's 2013 Regional District Amendment Committee.
Mount Greylock School Committee member Carolyn Greene chaired the district's 2013 RDAC, which did the bulk of the research that informed this year's efforts. The Mount Greylock School Committee decided to put regionalization efforts on hold in 2013 when the district was invited into the Massachusetts School Building Authority's process.
"It was a very thorough process, but it wasn't enough, and we knew that," Greene said of the 2013 study. "Having that foundation this year was critical, because a lot of the work had been done. But this last piece was the most critical piece: finding a way to make the finances work, finding a way to assure local control, finding a way where one town wasn't going to benefit while the other town suffered. Those were the pieces we didn't quite solve in 2013.
"I'm really proud of the folks who brought this home. It was a lot of work in 2013, and it's a lot of work now."
And it is an idea that goes back even further than that.
"Really, it started when the folks in Williamstown and Lanesborough founded Union 71," Greene said. "When I came on the Mount Greylock School Committee in 2009 and Dr. Travis was retiring, I went to the board, and it was my first year and there was no plan for leadership. I proposed starting the conversation about joining with Union 71, and I remember the conversation with [then-SU71 Superintendent Rose Ellis], and I said, ‘What do you think?'
"She said, 'That's a great idea. Let's move on it.' So we formed the Tri-District. That was 2010."
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