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Start a dialogue

Frontier towns to meet Thursday to improve communication

SOUTH DEERFIELD — On Thursday, the Frontier Regional School Committee will hold a joint meeting with the boards of selectmen and finance committees of the four Frontier feeder towns — Deerfield, Sunderland, Whately and Conway — in an effort to increase communication between all parties.

In all, 36 public officials, including the finance committees, selectboards and Frontier Regional School Committee members, have been invited to the Frontier talks.

“We want to talk about the budget process and the needs of the school,” said Superintendent Martha Barrett. “This is a good opportunity to have a conversation with the towns.”

There are five discussion points for the meeting, according to the agenda. Topics are the limitations of Proposition 2½, the current regional school agreement, the school budget, the capital improvement budget process and K-6 or K-12 regionalization.

The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Frontier Regional School library media center.

It will be the first time Barrett meets with town leaders officially as superintendent. Barrett, formerly the Frontier Regional School principal, replaced Regina Nash, who retired last June.

“I’m there to listen to their concerns,” said Barrett. “This is something the towns wanted. I expect it to be informational.”

The meeting is intended to foster communication between the school and towns. Better communication during the budget season is what most selectmen hope to get out of the session.

“I think the most important aspect of the first meeting with the Frontier Regional School District for the next budget process is that the superintendent and the selectmen start a dialogue that leads to support for education and respect for the taxpayers,” said Conway Selectboard Chairman John O’Rourke. “We need to provide a solid education for every student and maximize the educational value of the tax dollars spent.”

Sunderland Selectman David Pierce said he hopes all sides have good relations from the start. “It’s important to try to improve communication, especially in terms of budgets,” Pierce said.

“One of the big issues is making sure the schools know where the towns stand in terms of the budget.”

Conway Selectboard member Jim Moore said he hopes to make the budget more equitable for all the towns each year. But at this point, Moore said he has no specific expectations and is attending to see what he can learn.

Whately Selectman Jonathan Edwards hopes the meeting is a springboard to many more meetings.

“Constant communication is critically important,” Edwards said. “These are all items we should constantly be discussing. We need to pay attention to the school budget and make sure it helps education in as fiscally a responsible way as possible.”

The meeting was planned after town selectboards requested it during last year’s budget season.

While many town finance and selectboards were frustrated with the increasing school budget, the tipping point was the School Committee’s capital request.

That will be an important topic, Barrett said.

“The capital will come up in discussion,” Barrett said. “We’re going to be honest with the towns that any big projects will be under borrowing or included in the annual budget request.”

Three of four towns are required to approve an operating budget. Last spring, all four towns approved the overall budget of $9,465,693 for the current school year.

But the School Committee for the first time asked the towns to pay for $133,250 in building improvement projects as part of a new five-year capital plan.

Town selectboards argued they did not have to pay for the capital project because it wasn’t submitted with the school operating budget.

While Whately and Conway supported their shares of the project costs, Deerfield only supported a portion. And Sunderland’s vote to pay was dependent on the other three towns’ support.

Barrett has recently asked Deerfield and Sunderland to reconsider the capital request at a future special town meeting.

Another big discussion item is school regionalization, an idea floated several times over the years with decreasing school enrollment.

“This has come up in the past,” said Barrett. “People have expressed interest because of the budget process.”

There are currently five school districts — four separate elementary schools and one regionalized grades 7 to 12 school. To govern the schools, there are five separate school committees and five budgets. But there is only one administrative office and one superintendent.

In the past, there has been debate about reorganizing the school districts into a K-12 system — or a K-6 system with two school committees.

Frontier Regional School Committee member Robert Decker advocates for regionalization simply to save money and to stop the duplication of efforts.

“It needs to be looked at,” said Decker. “We should look for efficiencies and make it work and make it work better.”

The meeting precedes the start of the Frontier Regional School administrators budget process, which involves talks with the school principal about school and building needs.

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