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Mohawk schools 2∕3 empty

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  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Extra classroom at the Buckland Shelburne Elementary School being rented by The Mary Lyon Foundation.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Extra classroom at the Buckland Shelburne Elementary School being rented by The Mary Lyon Foundation.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Extra classroom at the Buckland Shelburne Elementary School being rented by The Mary Lyon Foundation.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.

BUCKLAND — In the 1990s, the Mohawk Trail Regional School District had a building boom of sorts, with school building repairs and expansions that were about 70 percent reimbursed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The new Heath Elementary School opened in 1995, and the new Sanderson Academy school building replaced Ashfield’s older school building in 1997.

But since then, enrollments have been steadily dropping, and now all four elementary schools and the Mohawk Trail Regional School are educating only about one-third the number of students they were designed to serve. And school officials are talking about whether operating so many buildings is still doable for the nine small hilltowns that compose the district.

The issue was raised at a recent Mohawk budget subcommittee meeting and will be brought to the full Mohawk Trail Regional School District Committee at its next meeting on Feb. 13.

“How is it cost-effective for us to maintain four elementary schools when we could fit all our elementary students into Buckland Shelburne Elementary?” asks Mohawk Chairman Robert Aeschback of Plainfield. “Our communities don’t have open checkbooks. We can’t spend unlimitedly.”

“I feel it is our job, as a school committee, to present (our communities) with quality education that they can afford.”

The Mohawk Trail Regional middle-and high School has enough classroom capacity for 1,538 students, but its current enrollment is 518.

Buckland Shelburne Elementary School, which can accommodate up to 691 students, has 216 enrolled. Colrain Central has capacity to educate 374 students, but it currently has 111. And the Heath Elementary School, which can accommodate 211 students, now has 70.

The “Building Capacity vs. Enrollment” worksheet was recently compiled by Mohawk facilities manager Robin Pease and discussed at a recent Mohawk budget subcommittee meeting.

Aeschback said the school committee hired Potomac Capital Advisors last fall to do a building assessment study of school district property, which will be presented to the board in March.

“Let’s start talking about the capacity of our buildings and the costs to maintain them,” he said. “In my opinion, we really need to revisit the regional agreement. We need to look at the ability to close schools and at the ability to consolidate. How much can taxpayers afford?”

Under the 20-year-old regional agreement, which made Mohawk a kindergarten through Grade 12 school system, closing any school would require a “yes” vote from all eight Mohawk member towns at annual town meetings. In past years, there have been bitter disagreements during discussions of school consolidation about which school or schools to close.

“Somehow, we’ve got to come up with an idea, so these communities can remain solvent and we can still have quality education,” said Aeschback.

He added: “Being the most unpopular person in the world, I would say we need Mohawk (the high school) and we need Buckland Shelburne(elementary school).”

“If you lived alone in a 20-room house, the question is: why do you need it and what is it going to cost?”

For the coming school year, a draft budget proposal calls for a 1.4 percent budget increase, yet town assessments will go up a collective 2.5 percent.

Although the Hawlemont Regional School is not part of the Mohawk district, it, too, is under used. That school, of 12 full-size classrooms and 5 smaller rooms has room for 354 students. Of the 154 students using the building, 58 are in the Rowe Elementary and Rowe preschool programs.

With this year’s enrollment, class sizes for the elementary schools ranged from 11 students to 23 students per class.

Mohawk Trail Regional School has 340 students in Grades 9 through 12, and 166 students in the middle school.

The last round of discussions about closing or consolidating Mohawk schools occurred in 2005 to 2006, when a consultant reported that Mohawk and Hawlemont enrollment had dropped by 275 students between 1998 and 2005. According to Recorder files, consultant Richard Scortino reported in March 2005 that Mohawk schools were operating at 70 percent capacity. In the spring of 2006, Mohawk proposed a town meeting warrant article, asking member towns to give the school committee authority to close school buildings, but that measure was defeated.

By the end of 2006, school Superintendent Michael Buoniconti determined that closing any of the schools built or repaired with state funding wouldn’t save the district money, because the district could lose reimbursement aid for the construction work.

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

By consolidating schools in the Hilltowns, some children would have a very long commute. If you lived on the Savoy end of Plainfield, would you want your kindergartener on a bus to and from Buckland Shelburne Elementary every day? Even though it costs more to run more schools, let's not forget the daily impacts on children of closing local elementary schools.

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