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Mohawk looks again at under-used buildings

BUCKLAND — The Mohawk Trail Regional School Committee has asked new school Business Administrator Michael Kociela for a school building study “to determine the most cost-efficient infrastructure.”

This new study comes after continuing reports on declining enrollment trends and a superintendent’s report a few years ago asserting the elementary schools are at least half-empty.

Although the “C” word — consolidation — was not used in the school board vote, it’s clear that the eight-town district will be looking again at either school closures or mixed uses of partially occupied schools this academic year, as a way to bring down costs.

The Mohawk Trail Regional School District’s Long-Range Planning Committee is also studying how to make the unwieldy school district more economical. That group, largely made up town officials from Mohawk towns, is preparing to give its findings to the school board later this fall, according to its chairman Shelburne Selectman Joseph Judd.

This issue of closing a school was extensively studied in 2006, but ultimately the nine-town district was unable to get unanimous approval from member towns to give the School Committee the power to close any school. Also, because mortgages for some new school buildings and expansions done in the 1990s were still being paid off, there was concern that closing a building would cost the district state reimbursement funds for the buildings. But now, those debts have been paid off.

Past proposals have included moving the Buckland-Shelburne Elementary students into a wing of the Mohawk Trail Regional School and closing BSE. In May 2006, Mohawk asked member towns to change the Mohawk regional agreement, giving the School Committee the authority to close buildings, but the measure was defeated by two towns. Under the regional agreement, no school building can be closed without a unanimous vote of the member towns. In early 2007, Superintendent Michael Buoniconti had talked about closing Heath, Sanderson and Colrain elementary schools and turning BSE into a regional elementary school for the entire district. At the time, he said the move would save the district $4.6 million over five years.

Although the Mohawk district got majority support from towns for this year’s school budget, Buckland voted against its 5.6 percent assessment increase, after selectmen didn’t support it. Selectman Kevin Fox said the town had asked the school administration to “come back to us with a consolidation plan” seven years ago. “I cannot recommend we pass a budget until we get some leadership from them, and they come back with a consolidation plan,” he told town meeting voters.

Mile for mile, the Mohawk district serves a region as large as Boston, Springfield or Worcester, yet it only has about 1,000 students. In 2007, according to Recorder files, Buoniconti had said the district’s buildings have enough capacity for 2,000 students.

This summer, Shelburne town officials looked at available space within the BSE school for a possible new police station or a senior center to be shared by three towns. However, the board doesn’t believe the school building is the best site for either of those uses.

Kociela is to bring his findings to a joint meeting of the district’s building and budget subcommittees. Those boards will then report their findings to the School Committee, along with any recommendations.”

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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