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Mohawk looks at sharing schools

Can town services like senior centers, libraries makes use of extra space?

  • The Mary Lyon Education Foundation offices, housed within the Buckland Shelburne Elementary School, is an example of excess school space put to use. <br/> Recorder/Diane Broncaccio

BUCKLAND — Why should Mohawk school buildings be half-empty when its eight regional school district member towns are looking for space for senior centers, libraries, meeting rooms, town offices, police departments and for town records storage?

The Mohawk Trail Regional School District Committee has agreed to explore options for sharing its available space within its under-used school buildings with member towns.

“We understand declining enrollment has emptied school classrooms,” said school Superintendent Michael Buoniconti. “The point is to begin the conversation, to find out what might the towns want to use the space for, so the towns get some added use from them.”

With the School Committee’s support, Buoniconti hopes to meet with the Mohawk Trail Regional School District Long-Range Planning Committee to see if the eight towns are interested in using unused space in the school buildings.

“We just haven’t had that conversation yet,” said Buoniconti. “If the towns are interested, it’s a model we need to look at, in the context of keeping the district operating well.”

An example of an outside group sharing unused school space is the Mary Lyon Foundation, which raises money for educational support for schools, educational programs and school families within western Franklin County.

Buoniconti said Mary Lyon does not pay rent, but provides a valuable educational resource for the district.

“They support education; they’re part of the team,” he said. “The same is true of Mohawk towns. They’re our partners.”

“We haven’t had this conversation yet with our towns,” he continued. “I’m not looking at this as a way to charge (rent), but the School Committee will be the decision-maker on that,” Buoniconti said. “If it helps save the towns money, by having access to space, that would make it easier for them to support us, if we can help them with another part of the budget. A by-product would be connectedness with our towns.”

“If the School Committee supports the idea, the first step would be for me to speak to the Long-Range Planning Committee,” said Buoniconti. “It would be fantastic if we could get some specific uses before annual town meeting time.”

School Committee Chairman Robert Aeschback pointed out that overall enrollment has declined from about 1,500 students to slightly under 1,000 students now. “We have empty space in every building,” he said.

Mile for mile, the Mohawk Trail Regional School District serves a region as large as Boston, Springfield, Worcester and seven more of the state’s largest-enrollment school districts combined, according to information presented by Buoniconti. Yet Mohawk serves only about 1,000 students.

According to a “building capacity versus enrollment” worksheet that was distributed last year, Mohawk school buildings are one-third to one-half full, based on the buildings’ space capacity.

The subject of closing some of the under-used school buildings has been pursued a few times, but problems arose over which school to close in a district of 250 square miles. Also, the Mohawk regional agreement stipulates that, to close any school, there must be unanimous annual town meeting votes of approval from member towns.

The last round of school-closing discussions occurred in 2005, when a consultant’s report noted that Mohawk schools were operating about 70 percent capacity, according to Recorder files. In 2006, Mohawk sought annual town meeting approval for a warrant article that would give School Committee members the authority to close school buildings. That measure was defeated.

“How cost-effective is it for us to maintain four elementary schools when we could fit all our elementary students into Buckland-Shelburne Elementary?” Aeschback asked at an earlier School Committee. According to a building capacity report, prepared by facilities manager Robin Pease, Buckland-Shelburne school could accommodate up to 691 students. The current enrollment is 216.

Mohawk itself can house about 1,500 students, according to that same report. But its enrollment is around 500.

Mohawk Long Range Planning Committee was formed to consider the long-range economic stability of the school district, which has seen an enrollment decline over the past decade and has unoccupied classroom space in buildings that have been repaired with state funds. It consists of town officials from Mohawk member towns.

Another required step, if towns and the school board support dual usage for school property, would be to get state approval for such a use, since the school buildings were built or expanded in the 1990s with reimbursements from the School Building Authority.

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

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