Lanesborough, Williamstown voters approve regional school district expansion

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Voters in Lanesborough and Williamstown on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a proposal to unify four school committees into one by regionalizing three individual school districts during near-simultaneous special town meetings.

In Williamstown, a vast majority of the 303 voters approved the proposal with a voice vote.

An overwhelming majority of a very small turnout in Lanesborough also backed expanding Mount Greylock Regional School District to a pre-K-through-grade-12 school system.

Only 131 — nearly 6 percent — of the town's 2,341 registered voters showed up at Lanesborough Elementary School for the special town meeting.

After about 30 minutes of questions and debate and a failed attempt to have a secret ballot, Town Moderator Robert Reilly had no trouble determining the "yes" votes — as very few raised their hands against the proposal.

Nevertheless, the naysayers voiced their concerns, ranging from loss of local control over their grade school to fear that Williamstown would dominate the district by holding a 4-3 edge on the Mount Greylock School Committee.

District officials noted that the committee make-up remains the same as when the original district was formed 51 years ago.

"We've always worked together," said Chris Dodig, a Lanesborough representative on the school board.

Dodig noted that the expanded district streamlines financially and administratively the operation of all three schools under one superintendent.

Opponents worried that the loss of the elementary school committee would adversely affect the town's say in how it is run.

"I want to be in control of our children," said Lanesborough Finance Committee Chairman Ray Jones. "We should have 100 percent say in [their education.]"

Finance Committee colleague Ronald Tinkham countered by noting: "Our school councils are local and will have [more] input on the budget. I see no downside to this."

Many Lanesborough residents, pro and con, feared that the single district would lead to a consolidation of the elementary schools.

Given the 16-mile difference between the two, school officials said that's not an option and that it would require unanimous approval to shutter either building.

"No elementary school can be closed without consent of both towns," said Lanesborough School Committee Chairwoman Regina DiLego.

The proposal passed in Williamstown with no discussion, question or debate, going straight to a voice vote. It amends the Mount Greylock Regional Agreement to allow the regional district to educate students from grades kindergarten through 12.

"The agreement retains Lanesborough Elementary School and Williamstown Elementary School in their capacities for their respective towns," reads the warrant for the Williamstown meeting.

The agreement also specifies that no individual school can be closed without the approval of the voters in that town.

For years, there have been four school committees running the three schools between the two towns.

The Mount Greylock School Committee oversees the high school and middle school. Then there are three school committees overseeing two elementary schools: the Lanesborough Elementary School Committee, the Williamstown Elementary School Committee and the SU71 Committee, which coordinates shared resources and services between the two schools.

As a result, there are a number of state reporting requirements that are duplicated among the four committees, and a number of logistical difficulties in sharing administrative services among four school committees and three schools.

The effort to unify the four districts started in 2013, when a $50,000 state grant funded a feasibility study, which yielded some promising potentials.

By unifying the schools in one district and one school committee, a number of efficiencies would be realized, Carrie Greene, chairwoman of the Regionalization Subcommittee, said during the lead-up to the town meetings. Savings would be realized in the cost of professional development, administration and curriculum development.

With a new high school opening soon, and with educational achievement levels comparable at both elementary schools, officials considered this as a good time as any to bring it all under one organization.

As it stands, the four districts have to file so many reports annually that it demands a significant diversion of manpower that could be put toward the educational effort.

A unified district, Greene told The Eagle last spring, "would have one school committee, one budget and one set of reports to the state."

In addition, trying to attract quality leadership is difficult amid the search for a new superintendent.

"It's hard to attract leaders into such a burdensome system," Greene said. "We need to give them the ability to work more effectively to deliver education in a streamlined way."

To pass, the agreement needed a simple majority vote at both town meetings.

Now that it has been approved, a transitional school committee will be empowered until the next town elections.

Reach Dick Lindsay at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233. Reach Scott Stafford at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com.


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