Mohawk to Colrain: ‘Status quo’ not an option
“Nothing is set in stone,” said Martha Thurber, who chairs both the BEST Committee and, as of Wednesday, the Mohawk Trail Regional School board.
BEST stands for Building Education, Sustainability and Trust.
“Everything is on the table except the status quo,” she said. “Healthy towns require healthy school districts and healthy school districts require healthy towns.”
“Anything that we have recommended cannot be done without a vote of approval by all eight towns,” said Thurber. “But if we don’t change, the only alternative is deep cuts to all our programs. Every rural community is seeing declining enrollment and population base, but it doesn’t translate into declining costs,” she said.
Thurber explained that every Mohawk elementary school has at most a single classroom for each grade level. If a classroom of 20 students loses five, the district still must pay the same for a teacher in that classroom and the same for school bus transportation, Thurber explained.
The Heath Elementary School, Thurber said, has a combined fourth, fifth and sixth-grade classroom of only seven students. She said Heath realizes that the quality of its children’s education is affected by the shrinking enrollment, and that operating a school on $1.1 million per year to educate 29 enrolled students “isn’t reasonable.”
Thurber said Mohawk is working with Heath on a bill that would allow Heath to tuition its elementary students to either Rowe or to the Hawlemont Regional School, which are the two schools closest to Heath.
When asked why Heath couldn’t send its students to Colrain or Buckland Shelburne Elementary School in Shelburne Falls, Thurber said Heath townspeople were concerned about putting their youngest students on school buses for an hour-long commute.
Mohawk estimates that closing the Heath Elementary School would save the district at least $500,000, and is factoring that savings into its new school year budget. When asked what Mohawk will do if Heath doesn’t reach a tuition agreement by the fall, Thurber said if the Heath School has to remain open it would do so with a greatly reduced operating budget.
Phases 2 and 3
Closing Heath’s school is the Phase 1 proposal. Phase 2 is to move all of Mohawk’s sixth-grade classes to the Mohawk Middle School. Phase 3, scheduled for the fall of 2018, would be to move Colrain children into what is now the Buckland Shelburne Elementary (BSE) School and to move some of the Buckland children, who live closest to Ashfield, into Sanderson Academy. Thurber said the name BSE may be renamed, to represent its change as a “new school,” serving children from three towns.
She repeated that every change, including Colrain Central’s closing, would require a Mohawk regional agreement change and town meeting approval from all member towns.
“Change can equal opportunity,” said Plainfield Selectboard member and School Committee member Leslie Rule. She said 69 percent of American middle schools now include sixth grade. She said the move will provide “an expansion of experience” for the district’s sixth-graders. They will have more peers to socialize with, and they can get involved with sports, arts and performing arts programs offered at Mohawk. Rule and other members of the BEST Committee pointed out that sixth-graders with ties to Mohawk may be less likely to use School Choice to move out of the district, or move on to charter schools at that juncture.
Without reducing Mohawk’s costs, the district would have to cut student programs, said Rule. When asked what those cuts would be, she said, “Whatever is not MCAS-tested is a potential for cutting — arts, music,” she said. Rule pointed out that only 12 families out of Plainfield’s 326 families send children to Mohawk’s schools. She said only 3 percent of the town has children in the schools, but that 100 percent “have to pay for our rising assessments.”
Moving sixth-graders to Mohawk and closing Colrain Central School could save the district another $600,000 in operating costs — putting total savings at $1.1 million.
Phase 4 dropped
What was to have been Phase 4, having all elementary students on a centralized campus — possibly at Mohawk — has been dropped, Thurber said, because people interpreted it as a major goal and a huge expense.
“It’s not our major recommendation. It’s something to consider, only if it created economies of scale.”
Parents asked what would happen to their 58-year-old school building if it is closed. School board members said the building is owned by the town — not by Mohawk — and it would be returned to the town for other possible uses. They said the district is working with the state School Building Authority to be sure the school district will not have to repay state money awarded for school building improvements.
When asked what happens if the town’s elementary student population increases, Rule said, “Economic development in the only thing that changes the equation, and economic development will not happen without broadband.”
Mohawk School Committee member Joseph Kurland of Colrain said that, if education is cut, young families will be less inclined to move into Colrain and other Mohawk towns, which will lose their vibrancy.
“This isn’t easy for anybody,” said Thurber. “We wish this wasn’t happening. But if we do nothing, we will have a very much gutted education.”
Leyden Selectman Lance Fritz said his town is in a similar position, with only 23 town students in a school — at a cost of at least $500,000 to the town. Thurber suggested he contact Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti about the work of the Massachusetts Rural Schools Association.