|Three Vie for Two Seats on Mount Greylock School Committee|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
03:58AM / Wednesday, October 31, 2018
|There are seven seats up for election for the newly reconstituted Mount Greylock Regional School District. The only race is for two four-year seats representing Lanesborough on the new School Committee.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Voters in Lanesborough and Williamstown will elect next week the first school committee of the recently expanded Mount Greylock Regional School District.
The district since January's advent of regionalization has been led by the Transition Committee, formed by elected members of the former Mount Greylock, Lanesborough Elementary and Williamstown Elementary committees.
Those three "legacy" bodies each went out of existence on June 30, per the regional agreement ratified by the region's member towns, Lanesborough and Williamstown, in November 2017.
Like the former iteration of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee — which oversaw the combined high and middle school — the new body will have seven members: four residents of the district's larger town, Williamstown, and three residents of Lanesborough.
All seven seats will be elected by residents of both towns.
In order to prevent full turnover every four years, the initial election has three two-year seats and four four-year seats.
Six of the seven seats are uncontested.
Lanesborough resident Al Terranova, an incumbent, is running for that town's two-year seat.
There are four seats available to Williamstown residents and four candidates on the ballot: newcomer Alison Carter (running for a two-year seat) and incumbents Joe Bergeron (two-year), Dan Caplinger (four-year) and Steven Miller (four-year).
There are three candidates running for two four-year seats available to Lanesborough residents, creating the one contested race in the election.
Incumbent Regina DiLego, a teacher at St. Stanislaus School in Adams, faces two newcomers, Lenox elementary school teacher Michelle Johnson and Christina Conry, a real estate agent and the studio manager at Berkshire Yoga Dance and Fitness.
Voters will pick two of the three to serve on the committee. Recently, each talked with iBerkshires.com about some of the issues. Below are excerpts from those conversations:
Q: What is motivating you to run for the school committee?
Conry: There are a couple of things. One is that I've been trying to play a more active role as a parent and a community member in what's going on with our schools. There's not currently a parent representative on the school committee from Lanesborough.
I care a great deal about the education of children in this community and care about the quality of teachers we have in this district. I want to make sure they stay here and are challenged and stay here for years to come.
Johnson: Because I'm a parent and a teacher, and I've been involved for several years going to meetings and whatnot.
It's time for a change. That's the bottom line.
Q: What kind of change?
Johnson: I think it's a new committee and a new district, and it's a good time to bring about some fresh, new perspective. We've seen a lot of the same faces for a lot of years, and I think it's time for new faces and new ideas.
Q: Was there something wrong with the old ideas?
Johnson: Not necessarily. It wasn't one particular event that made me decide to run for school committee. I've been thinking about it for a number of years. It's what I have the most knowledge about in town, being a teacher. I understand it from a bunch of different angles. Now that my kids are a little older, it's easier to leave them at home if I have to [for a meeting].
Q: Regina, you've been on the school committee, off and on, for 19 years — 10 years in your current tenure. Why continue?
DiLego: I believe in education. Our children and our towns are important to me. It was a given, in my mind, that I needed to see where we were in the process and how much more work there was to do.
I realized there's a lot more work to do.
Q: Such as … ?
DiLego: Coming together as a region. We had the vote, and that's great, but there's a lot of work to be done in terms of negotiations, changing the mindset, aligning the curriculum the way we want to do it, putting together the District Improvement Plan and having a vision for a region.
It's time to get our families to embrace [regionalization]. I'm not sure everyone is mentally embracing it.
Q: Why is service on the school committee so important?
Conry: Let me touch a little on social media. Social media is a powerful marketing tool. I use it right now in my business. … But it can also spread negatives like wildfire. I think it's happening right now, and part of it has to do with the committee. As a parent on the school committee, I'll be constantly at the school, and I'll try to attend every meeting I can. I'm trying to become more involved and more visible.
As parents see me as a fellow parent, someone who cares about this school and education, they will become more comfortable communicating things that come up. Right now, people don't always know who they can go to to voice concerns. Visibility as a parent will be beneficial.
Johnson: When my kids were younger, things were going well, from my perspective. Things are rocky at the moment, and there are a number of reasons for that. … I think the school committee can change that by being transparent and open to the community, by being available to people, willing to talk to people. I don't know that that's not the case now, but the school committee is not where people are choosing to go to get their problems solved. That's one of their roles, to listen to the community that elected them and provide positive direction to the school system.
Q: Does the school committee need to be more hands on?
Johnson: I'd like to see the committee have a little more oversight. There's a little bit of a disconnect. The things that happened when the [former Lanesborough Elementary] principal left, some of the things we heard he didn't do — I don't know how that got missed at the superintendent or school committee level. I'm not sure how I'd change that, but I'd be accessible to parents and community members in addition to the school staff, the teachers and the custodians and everyone else.
Q: Regina, given your years of experience on the elementary school committee in Lanesborough, what was the biggest eye-opener for you when you moved into a role on the Transition Committee in January?
DiLego: I don't know that it's the middle-high school itself that is the biggest eye-opener for me. I think it's the region. Regions function so differently. That's a big change for me. There was so so much for us to learn. … I knew the high school. I went there. But regionalization is so different. Even the budgeting process is different.
Q: One budget issue that certainly will continue to face the school committee in the months ahead is how to handle the infrastructure work that needs to be done on the campus after the building project — the field work, the district office. How do you see that shaking out, specifically in terms of the $5 million gift from Williams College that Mount Greylock received at the start of the project?
DiLego: I agree with the position the Transition Committee has taken to save $1.5 million for future maintenance issues. I agree what that so we have something to fall back on. Obviously, that [$3.5 million] doesn't give us enough to do everything else, but … it's easy to point to the endowment that Williamstown Elementary has. That endowment has allowed them to make the repairs they need. They're tapping into it. [A new boiler] would be a big hit, even if you are an affluent town. This endowment and managing it correctly will save towns in the long run. That would be my argument to people who say, 'Spend it, spend it.'
We have a plan. We have a subcommittee looking at the campus' needs. We can envision it, but it may not happen this year. It's a long-range plan that involves fund-raising, and eventually, we will get it done.
Q: Another ongoing issue for the Transition Committee that likely still will be on the table when the new committee is constituted is the district's contracts with its union employees. What have you been able to glean about that and what opinions may you have formed from an outsider's perspective?
Conry: That's a tough one. That has been scaring me the most. … My daughter came in as a first-grader, and my son came in as a fifth-grader and now is in ninth-grade, and I've had the opportunity to meet all of their teachers, and they are quality teachers. And some of them have gone above and beyond what is expected. I have been so very grateful for all of that. I will definitely be taking that experience into executive session with me, knowing the importance of these teachers and how much they care for our students.
I don't know what else happens in executive sessions, but I know that. I don't want any of the children to be impacted by the contract negotiations. … I think I'm in a scary place, but I'm up for that challenge.
Johnson: I don't have an opinion [on the contract negotiations] because I haven't heard both sides of the story. I feel like the information coming out is sparse at best. As a teacher, as a public school teacher, I have a unique understanding of the negotiation process and what it entails, what a contract looks like, what it could look like. I have a perspective on that, but I don't know the details.
I wish the union had asked that all the negotiations be made public. I can't support either side until I know what the issues are.
Q: On the topic of negotiations, Michelle do you think there's a potential conflict of interest for you as a teacher in arguably a similar school district that is competing for teachers in the same labor pool for you to be voting on contracts?
Johnson: That's a good question. I guess I wouldn't have to necessarily be on the negotiating subcommittee. I think there's no conflict of interest if I was not on the negotiations committee. We're not currently negotiating a contract in Lenox, but I'm not on the [union's] negotiations team.
Q: You understand the potential for conflict, though. The fear would be that someone who was a teacher in a nearby district might advocate for gold-plating the contract here.
Johnson: [Teaching] jobs are so few and far between in Berkshire County. It's not like there are 43 openings for every year. Finding a teaching job in Berkshire County is not easy. In terms of the labor pool, there are a bunch of factors there. … In terms of gold-plating, the only way for me to potentially do that would be to be on the negotiating subcommittee.
I don't see me gold-plating [the contract]. Those are my taxes, that would be like taking money out of my pocket.
And Regina is a teacher, too. She teaches at St. Stan's.
Q: Regina, you come into the election with, potentially, the political "baggage" of having served on the Berkshire County Education Task Force, whose recommendation of a single countywide district as an aspiration was met with a lot of criticism. Are you concerned about that affecting voters?
DiLego: It's not anything I've given any thought to. The Task Force made a lofty recommendation that I don't think anyone thought was going to come to fruition. Now, the conversation has shifted more to: What can we do to help you share services?
Any study committee you get on is apt to come to a conclusion that isn't popular. … I found being on the Task Force to be a wonderful opportunity to connect with other districts, learn what the issues are that other districts are facing and talk about how to solve them. It's given me more resources than ever.
Q: Christina, of the three candidates in this race, you are the newest one to town. Do you worry that being perceived as a "newcomer" could be a liability?
Conry: I think the newcomer piece does concern me a little bit in that my name is not known. In any town you go, there are going to be families who have been recognized for years and years. They founded the town, they've been here, they're working in town. How do I get my name out between now and Nov. 6? I don't know. I'm going to go and hand out 'Vote for me' cards ... at the [Lanesborough Elementary School] open house.
At the same time, I'm hoping the people who do know me and know how much I care about the children and this district and know how dedicated I am will help spread the word. In some ways, maybe it's an advantage that I'm new to town. Maybe it tells people that there are other people out there who care and are willing to step up to the plate.
Q: One of the issues that has come up repeatedly in the first year of full regionalization is the long-held perception that there is inequity between the district's two elementary schools. As a Lanesborough resident and, potentially, a member of the Mount Greylock School Committee, what are your thoughts on that?
Johnson: I feel the reason we're each voting on our own elementary school budgets [per the regional agreement approved last November] is so we can maintain local control. You can't have it both ways. You either want local control or you want everything Williamstown has.
If you want to maintain local control, you have to lobby at the local level to drive the school in the direction you want it to go.
If you want to see things happen at your school, lobby for the budget to support it. If you value arts education and want to make sure our kids get 30 full minutes [of lessons], advocate for it. Stand up at town meeting, as I have in the past, and advocate for that kind of thing.
DiLego: For the whole 10 years of this sitting on the school committee, that's been the pervasive message: We're the smaller school, we're the less affluent community. I think LES is a wonderful school that offers great opportunities for kids. I think we're more equivalent than people realize.
Parents only want what's best for their children, and they're speaking from the heart. Would these concerns still be raised if we were not a region and we had to do these things on our own because we only have 200 students? I don't know that regionalization is the reason.
Conry: I would hope we can address [equity], and I have felt that. My concern with my feelings versus what's fact is that the two schools are different in the number of students who attend them. In some cases, can there really be equity? I don't know. The enrollment is so very different. I do want to make sure the curriculum is aligned.
I am directly impacted, personally. My child happens to be in the [LES] class of 25, where there was all the discussion last year about whether to break it into two classrooms [it wasn't]. It continues to be a concern for me. There are a lot of studies that say [large classrooms are not] a great learning environment, not a great teaching environment. But there's very little I can do about it. That is tricky because we won't know until they get to seventh grade if that was a disadvantage to them or if they're doing fine.
It's definitely a concern, and I would hope with regionalization we can make sure Williamstown and Lanesborough are equitable.
Local ballots for school committee are available in Lanesborough and Williamstown; the election is being held the same day as the state and federal elections on Tuesday, Nov. 6.