Cummington squeezed on $71.8M school vote

  • A rendering of the proposed Wahconah school building project in the Central Berkshire Regional School District. SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 3/13/2019 5:34:50 PM

CUMMINGTON — As Cummington continues preparations to leave the Central Berkshire Regional School District, officials are imploring the district to reconsider an upcoming vote on a $71.8 million school building project that, if approved now, could leave Cummington responsible for helping to fund the building of the new Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton.

In a March 8 letter to the Regional School District, members of the Cummington Select Board asked the district to consider three alternatives to a popular vote currently scheduled for Saturday, April 6.

“Because we are in the process of leaving the district, we feel it is inappropriate to be part of the WRHS building project,” the letter read.

In the letter, the Select Board noted that Cummington would be out of the district by the time the new school was complete and that the new school should not be a tax burden on residents in Cummington.

The letter writers also objected to the use of a popular vote for a capital project, rather than the traditional town-by-town vote that the board says has always been used in the past.

The Select Board said it was concerned that choosing to use a popular vote effectively “silences the voices of the towns on capital projects and works to the advantage of towns with bigger populations of voters such as Dalton.”

The letter then officially requested that the district either postpone the vote on the new high school until Cummington's withdrawal is complete; hold the vote but exempt Cummington from any financial obligations; or seek voter approval for the project through a town-by-town vote. 

With the April 6 vote just weeks away, the Select Board asked for a decision by March 21.

Central Berkshire Superintendent Laurie Casna said on Wednesday that a postponement of the vote was "highly unlikely."

“We are working with the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) on this project and they have a process that requires that the vote happens by a certain date, so we are working under their deadlines,” Casna said.

The issue is set to be discussed at a Central Berkshire Regional School Committee meeting on Thursday.

“If nothing comes out of the March 14 discussion, the only thing we are left with is this vote, and we need at least 50 percent participation from the town to affect anything,” said Bill Adams a member of the Cummington Select Board. “So our big push would be vote, vote, vote!”

Leaving the district

Cummington is one of seven member towns in the regional school district and the only town from Hampshire County. The town's decision to leave the district was solidified when officials decided to close the town's Berkshire Regional Elementary School in 2015.

While the district has voted to let Cummington withdraw from the regional agreement to begin, there has been continued disagreement about the amount of money the town would owe the district upon leaving.

According to Adams, the only sticking point holding up the withdrawal process is a dispute over how much money Cummington owes the district for its share of other post-employment benefits, or OPEB. He says that once that is settled, the member towns will hold a final vote to officially release Cummington from the district.

“It really boils down to negotiating the OPEB number — everything else is set and ready to go,” Adams said. “The problem is they are saying it is $1.5 million and we think it is more like $500,000 to $600,000.”

Mediation, tuition agreements

As negotiations drag on, Cummington remains stuck in a sort of educational limbo — unable to leave a district they say no longer serves their needs, and unable to secure an agreement with a new school district for the town's children.

The Cummington Education Committee sent a letter to Casna and the regional school committee asking, “for a second time, that CBRSD enter into mediation with Cummington,” in order to resolve the remaining OPEB determination.

In the letter, dated March 8, the Cummington Education Committee asks the district to “negotiate tuition agreements on Cummington’s behalf with the R.H. Conwell Elementary School in Worthington and Hampshire Regional High School and provide transportation to both schools,” on the advice of Christine Lynch, governance and facilities program manager of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The letter states that this "would address the growing inequities for the students, families, and town of Cummington and free up the town to move forward in its efforts to rebuild its community of children, as well as begin to restore healthy relationships with our neighboring school districts that are willing to receive our students."  

Central Berkshire School Committee Chairwoman Barbara Craft-Reiss said Wednesday that the district's attorney is currently reviewing both letters and that they will be discussed at the meeting Thursday.

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