Adams-Cheshire Regional girds for change based on study results

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CHESHIRE — Despite an uncertain path forward, there is one unquestionable fact: Change is coming for the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District.

That was the takeaway from a study of the district conducted last year by the Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management. Results of the study, taken after a months-long review of the district last year, were presented to the School Committee on Monday.

"Something is going to change, because something needs to change," said Monica Lamboy, a representative of the Collins Center, based at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The district commissioned the study last year following several years of difficult budgets and deep cuts. It included analysis of demographics and data, and three public meetings over the fall to glean community values and priorities. The center will hold another yet-to-be-scheduled meeting in the coming weeks to outline its recommendations for the district as it begins the fiscal 2018 budget planning process and beyond.

"We're hoping that we can give you information to have a really robust discussion about where to go forward," Lamboy said.

Among the decisions to be made is whether or not the district's current divide of students between Cheshire Elementary, C.T. Plunkett Elementary and Hoosac Valley Middle and High School is sustainable.

Ultimately, the decisions will be made by the School Committee, but Chairman Paul Butler said the board wants to hear from the community on any proposal.

"This is going to be a long process with a lot of important decisions to be made," Butler said.

As the Collins Center has conducted its study, interim Superintendent Robert Putnam said the administration already has been preparing for potential recommendations and "working out different scenarios," including "What happens in the event that we have to close a school in order to make budget?"

"The idea is not to go in with a preset notion ... but what are the costs of closing either one of the elementary schools? What are the costs of moving a percentage of the student population up to Hoosac?"

Both built in the 1920s, Cheshire Elementary was last substantially renovated in 1961, while C.T. Plunkett was redone in 1994. Both schools could use a complete overhaul, according to the Collins Center, and both have immediate capital needs such as roof repair.

Both elementary schools exceed the Massachusetts School Building Authority's guidance for square footage per student; C.T. Plunkett has 196 square feet per student and Cheshire Elementary has 253; the state guidelines are below 200.

Hoosac Valley Middle and High School was renovated in 2012 and also exceeds state guidelines for square footage per student.

As it considers how to shape the district, the School Committee also will have to consider the direction of both towns. The demographics and trends found by the Collins Center in Adams and Cheshire match what many similar communities across the state are facing.

Economically, the district's per capita income is below the state average. The district's death rate continues to outpace its birth rate which, in addition to people moving away, results in enrollment decline.

In addition to population decline, enrollment in the district has dropped, partly due to an increase in the number of students attending other districts, including the Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School District and the Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School.

Meanwhile, costs such as employee health care continue to rise sharply for districts across Massachusetts, according to Lamboy. Though Collins Center officials said the district's annual budget increases have been "relatively modest" in recent years, state aid has remained mostly flat, leaving the towns to pick up the slack and resulting in sharp cuts to staff and programming year after year.

Between fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2017, Adams' contributions to the district, including the cost of renovating Hoosac Valley Middle and High School, increased from $3.94 million to $5.45 million. During that same span, the town of Cheshire saw its contribution rise from $2.13 million to $2.64 million.

"Where year after year there's cuts, it has a very hard toll on the people who are trying to do the important work of education the children," Lamboy said. "They don't know what positions are going to exist next year."

The district spends less per pupil than the state average, according to the data aggregated by the Collins Center. In 2015, it spent $12,906 per pupil compared to an average of $14,943 across the state.

The Collins Center was created by the state Legislature to assist municipalities and school districts as they confront challenges.


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