Task force planned to address regionalization

HUNTINGTON – At the Gateway Towns Advisory Committee (GTAC) on Saturday in Stanton Hall, a report was given on the meeting that several members, including co-moderators Derrick Mason of Russell and Darlene McVeigh of Huntington, had on July 17 with Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-4th Berkshire District).
Mason said they met to discuss western Mass. schools, regionalization and sustainability. Mason said that Pignatelli informed them “in very clear terms” to get active and hopefully reconfigure the schools and the educational process for the future.
Mason said many of school systems are suffering: enrollment is declining, costs per student are going up, and the towns don’t have the budgets to maintain even the status quo.
Pignatelli pointed out at their meeting that the model being used for education hasn’t changed, maybe, since the 1800s.
The Southern Berkshire district has been working on this problem and applied for a grant, but didn’t receive one. Northern Berkshire recently held a meeting in Dalton attended by 30 people and are launching a campaign to rework their school system.
“It was a real ground breaker and an eye opener for us,” Mason said. “In my opinion, we should be attending these meetings and collaborating with them. It would help make our work easier, and help with grant funding.”
Mason said that Pignatelli recently met with the Governor’s staff on these issues, and brought Gateway Regional School District into the discussion.
“We are part of the problem that the state needs to address,” Mason said.
McVeigh, who also attended the meeting, said that one of Pignatelli’s strongest comments was that the work has to begin now.
“The state is not going to look favorably on us if we wait until the end of next year,” she said. “If we can demonstrate that the towns and the Gateway School Committee are working together, and if we can demonstrate progress, it will be easier to request additional mitigation funds.”
One point raised at the meeting was the need for mitigation funds for several years, not just this year.
“At the meeting with Smitty,” Tony van Werkhooven, member of Blandford’s Finance Committee who also attended the meeting with Pignatelli, said. “I mentioned the need for the towns to have an outside consultant, and mentioned a small grant would be helpful.”
Mason said he was told that at the meeting with the Governor, the need for financial aid was mentioned. He said the towns were encouraged to look for local sources, including local businesses.
“I totally agree with you that we should be looking for a strong, reputable consultant to work with us,” he said.
He said the costs tossed around have been anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 to hire somebody.
“I think we should go for the maximum,” he said.
A discussion on how a consultant might be funded followed. Ed Renauld, Selectman from Huntington pointed out that it’s too late to go back to the towns, because the budgets have been approved.
“We seem to be pretty much assured that mitigation funds will come back to the school district, and in turn come back to the towns,” Mason said. “I think we should talk about taking some of the mitigation funds, say $5,000 (each town), for this purpose.”
“You talk about reorganizing which is great, but reorganizing with who?” Gateway School Superintendent David Hopson asked. “You’ve got to have more than six towns to reorganize.”
He also asked what the committee meant by “sustainable.”
“I would argue that Gateway has reduced the amount that the towns spend every year,” he said. “Third, what is the overall goal? Is everything on the table? You have the perfect opportunity, because you have a bunch of senior administrators leaving over the next two or three years.”
“Until we can define what we want to be or hope to be in the future, the school district needs to know what all the options are,” McVeigh said.
“It’s not just the school, it’s the towns where the school is, where the students live,” Renauld said. “We need to be sustainable on both sides of that line. We need the people from the town who run the finances, and the School Committee. When we talk about shared services, why can’t we hire out our people? We can look at it from the other side – what can we offer other school districts?”
“We’re going to have to cast a wide net to see where we’re going to go,” Linda Miller form the Blandford Finance Committee said.
“What kind of task force are we trying to do?” Montanaro asked.
A discussion ensued about how to create a task force that is representative and recognized by all six towns and the School Committee. McVeigh suggested holding a meeting, and inviting Select Board members from each town, and the School Committee. She noted that Chester in particular hadn’t participated in GTAC in a long time.
Hopson suggested it might be helpful for three or four people from GTAC to get together first before a meeting with the towns. He also said he would speak to the School Committee about having a representative on the task force.
After further discussion, Mason asked if there was consensus in the room that it should start with three or four people, which was agreed to unanimously.
Mason said that GTAC also needs to start liaising with Central Berkshire and with the Governor’s office. He and Joe Kearns, a GTAC member from Middlefield, are going to Sen. Downing’s coffee hour in Williamstown next Monday for this purpose.

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