WILLIAMSTOWN -- After decades of tentative discussion, local communities are on track to finally arrive at a definitive recommendation regarding the formation of a regional pre-K-through-12 school district that would include Williamstown, Lanesborough and possibly Hancock and New Ashford.
With a $50,000 grant awarded by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education earlier this year, the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee launched a comprehensive, community-driven study of how a fully regionalized school district could take shape.
The Mount Greylock Regional School District currently includes Williamstown and Lanesborough, with the Williamstown and Lanesborough elementary schools comprising their own districts. (New Ashford tuitions its elementary school students to Lanesborough, and students from New Ashford and Hancock can tuition into Mount Greylock.)
In January, the School Committee formed a larger Regional District Amendment Committee, made up of teachers, administrators, town committee members and other residents from Lanseborough and Williamstown, to examine the issues of regionalization. The committee was divided into four task groups to focus on the areas of collective bargaining agreements, educational costs and benefits, financing and legal issues, and public relations.
The RDAC hired Stephen Hemman, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools (and former superintendent of Narragansett Regional School District in central Mass.
Carolyn Greene, chair of both the School Committee and the RDAC, said discussions to expand the region have been ongoing in the community for about 40 years. When Superintendency Union 71 (which includes Williamstown and Lanesborough schools) formed an agreement with Mount Greylock in 2011 to share an administrative staff, regionalization became a potential next step.
"So those of us who are in leadership positions on the school committees of the three schools felt it was an obligation on our part to at least put this to the communities - to gather the information and figure out whether this made sense to go that final step of fully regionalizing," Greene said.
The benefits of an expanded region would include a more streamlined administration, transportation subsidies for the Williamstown and Lanseborough elementary schools, and a unified core curriculum that would allow students to enter high school on a more level playing field.
The schools currently share a superintendent and administrative staff, but each has its own administrative process, which leads to costly redundancy. "There are three school committees, three separate budgets, nine to 12 contracts, collective bargaining units, and about 300 reports to file with the state - all of which could be cut into a third if you became one full region," Greene said. She added that Mount Greylock has already saved significantly from the Union 71 agreement.
But the overall benefits of streamlining through regionalization are uncertain, she said. "I’m not sure if that is a benefit that outweighs what our communities would see as potential costs to an expanded region. But there’s always pressure from the state to look at regionalization. And that’s why they offer these grants."
Drawing from two previous MARS-facilitated projects, Hemman will guide the RDAC and the local communities through a three-step process that will hopefully allow the RDAC to present a final recommendation to the School Committee by the end of June. Hancock and New Ashford have been invited to join the process.
Phase I, which is underway, focuses on community outreach and gathering feedback from the local communities. Green said the committee is trying to "make this as transparent and informative a process as we can. And I’m hoping that the next round we can extend further into church groups and other community organizations, so that we can get the information out there."
In Phase II, which will likely begin this summer, the committee will reconnect with constituencies to present their investigative findings and make a final recommendation. If the School Committee decides to act on teh recommendation, Phase III would involve working with the DOE and the towns to establish the new region.
At its April 22 meeting, the RDAC presented a draft regional agreement, showing what a new district might look like. In addition to having a unified administration and a coordinated curriculum, the two elementary schools, along with Mount Greylock, would share a restructured school committee. The towns would still own the school buildings, but would lease them to the region in order to comply with state law, which requires regions to control the school buildings. "There are other things that are going to happen as we go," Hemman said.
The committee will send the draft agreement to the Department of Education next week to be approved.
If the RDAC later decides that full regionalization is in the community’s best interest, it would make a recommendation to the School Committee, which would then submit an article to be voted on at a Special Town Meeting as early as next fall. If the town votes affirmatively, the DOE would need to be notified by Dec. 1 in order for the region to go into effect the following July.
Greene emphasized that the RDAC is neither for nor against regionalization, and that its main purpose is to inform the public. "We’re not in favor, we’re not opposed to it," she said. "We are in favor of investigating this in a very thorough way so that people can make an informed decision."
Although the DOE grant runs out at the end of June, there may be opportunities for continued funding, Hemman said. And while a final recommendation will also likely be made by the end of June, the School Committee can decide later on whether to move forward.
"The thing we’re going to be careful about is we want to move along but we don’t want to go too fast and [have] people think we’re trying to bowl them over," Hemman said. "And so if we can do it before Dec. 1, great. If we can’t, it will have to go into the following year - spring of 2014."
Greene said there will be opportunities in the fall for community forums like the one that occurred on April 10 to discuss issues of affordable housing in Williamstown. Ideally, they would occur after the communities have already encountered the issues. "I’m hoping that by the time that we get to that stage of having community forums and having more information out there in the community that people feel that they can trust the process," Greene said.
One added benefit of regionalization would be an opportunity to more effectively address longstanding structural issues at Mount Greylock. The School Committee submitted its most recent Statement of Interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority in February, pursuing funds for a smaller, safer and more efficient building. Expanding the school district would qualify Mount Greylock for additional percentage points from the MSBA, Greene said, increasing the amount of funding it could receive for a new a building project or renovations.
The current process of community outreach, she said, "could also potentially lay the groundwork for community outreach for a feasibility study with the MSBA." Greene had been hoping to address Mount Greylock’s building issues simultaneously when outreach for the regionalization study began.
The RDAC will continue to meet with public groups throughout April and into May. Greene already has collected a significant amount of community feedback. The committee "will use that, as well as the information we get from our task groups to create a FAQ sheet," she said. Residents can also visit the Williamstown-Lanesborough Public Schools website (wlschools.org) for the minutes from committee meetings, news stories, and other updates.