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Frontier forms planning subcommittee

DEERFIELD — The Frontier Regional School Committee and its four member towns have formed a Long Range Planning Subcommittee to address budget conflicts, improve communication and plan for the school’s long-term sustainability.

The Frontier Regional School Committee held a roundtable-style meeting with the selectboards and finance committees of its four feeder towns — Deerfield, Whately, Sunderland and Conway — on Thursday. The meeting was designed to improve communication between the school and the towns, particularly when it comes to the budget process.

One of the major issues the School Committee set out to resolve was the lingering unfunded $133,250 in capital projects.

Last spring, the School Committee introduced a five-year capital improvement plan, the first in 15 years since the school was rebuilt in 1997. Projects included improvements for safety and security, electrical upgrades and a student transport van that broke down in May.

The capital plan, however, surprised the towns, which were more than halfway finished with their budgets when they learned of the items. The method in which the capital projects were presented added to the confusion.

On Thursday, Donna MacNicol, the school’s lawyer, said “part of the problem is the state statutes, regional agreement and budget processes the towns used have not always been in sync.”

According to the regional agreement, adopted in 1954, the towns are required to approve a school operating budget. The towns don’t have discretion on putting the budget on the annual warrant and the budget needs three of four towns’ support.

MacNicol said the regional agreement addresses operating costs and capital costs, which refers to construction. The regional agreement doesn’t mention maintenance costs. State statute Chapter 71, Section 16M, however, says the School Committee is responsible for adopting an operating budget and a maintenance budget.

Yet, the School Committee presented the capital projects separate from the operating budget last spring and the selectboards believed they could choose whether to fund the items.

MacNicol said the School Committee is allowed to adopt a maintenance (or capital) budget along with the operating budget.

Frontier has the right to put the capital items in the operating budget, MacNicol said. The school can either present the capital items separately or bury them within the operating budget.

“Part of what would be great is for there to be a consensus among the four towns on how they want this to work so it fits within the statutory framework,” said MacNicol.

William Smith, secretary of the Frontier budget subcommittee, said the School Committee chose to separate the capital projects from the operating budget to avoid killing the entire budget.

The new subcommittee will also once again study regionalizing the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts to either a K-6 or K-12 system.

There are currently five school districts — four separate elementary schools and one regionalized grades 7 to 12 school but only one administrative office.

According to 2012 data, Frontier Regional is about 77 percent full, and its four feeder elementary school districts — Conway (91 percent), Deerfield (90 percent), Sunderland (79 percent) and Whately (76 percent).

Frontier enrolls 100 fewer students than it did five years ago.

In 2009, the School Committee studied regionalizing into a K-12 system, but found little cost savings. Each time, the School Committee proposed regionalizing, it received push-back from the community, Smith said.

“There’s a passion here about the elementary schools,” said Smith. “It’s very dangerous territory and not enough money to be had.”

Regionalizing would require a single contract and health insurance costs for teachers in all five schools. Right now, elementary school teachers have lower salaries than the middle and high school teachers.

“I’d be happy to support a regional district,” said Conway Finance Committee member, Andrea Llamas. “I suspect there’d be a very different scenario today. We still see declining enrollment. ... We’ll be five years down the road and it’ll get worse. We’ll be starving our programs to pay for infrastructure.”

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at:
kmckiernan@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261 ext. 268.

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