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Regionalization study raises ire on Tantasqua board

Committee members at odds with superintendent over hiring of consultant

August 10, 2009
Some Tantasqua Regional School Committee members were dismayed to find a letter from Superintendent Daniel G. Durgin in their mailboxes on Friday, alerting them to a study being conducted to assess the financial logistics of consolidating the Union 61 schools with the Tantasqua Regional School District.

"I have hired the services of David J. Tobin as a consultant," Durgin wrote. "At my request, the Holland and Wales Regionalization Planning Committee endorsed the expanded study with the remaining funds from a state regionalization planning grant. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also approved the study."

Although members of the Holland/Wales Regionalization Planning Committee said the allocation of remaining grant funds was simply a way to use the money left after the two towns studied regionalizing elementary schools, some Tantasqua School Committee members feel the matter should have been handled in a different manner.

"Sending a letter without any prologue just doesn't make much sense to me," said Sturbridge representative to the School Committee James Ehrhard. "You just don't hire a consultant and say, 'Here's what I have to say.'"

"It should not have been sent without having a full discussion of the committee before the consultant was hired," Ehrhard continued. "This is not something you jam down the committee's throats without talking about it ahead of time."

James Cooke of Brookfield shares Ehrhard's concern.

"It was not presented to the School Committee as a whole," Cooke said. "This should have come up before the Tantasqua School Committee for authorization."

A veteran School Committee member, Cooke said the issue of regionalizing the elementary schools has come up four or five times over the last 20 years.

"It usually flounders on loss of local aid to the towns and loss of local control," Cooke said, explaining that a new configuration of the school system could alter the amount of local aid each individual town receives, while changing each town's obligated share of Tantasqua's overall budget.

Regardless of how many times the issue has been visited in the past, it has been absent from meeting agendas in recent months.

"This is the first I ever heard of some type of comprehensive restructuring of Union 61 like this," Ehrhard said.

Furthermore, Cooke is concerned with the choice of Tobin to conduct such a study.

"I would have been more comfortable with hiring Mr. Tobin as the consultant for the study if the Tantasqua School Committee had authorized the project, met him in advance and had the chance for input," he said.

Besides being taken up at a Wednesday, Sept. 23 meeting — 7p.m. in the high school auditorium — Cooke and Ehrhard both feel each of the five Tantasqua towns should take their own look at regionalization if that's an avenue they want to explore.

"I think the towns are going to have to look at this on their own," Cooke said.

"You've got very different towns with diverse opinions," Ehrhard added.

Not all members of the School Committee were as taken aback.

Michael Valanzola of Wales, who is a School Committee member, Selectman and member of the Holland and Wales Regionalization Planning Committee said that while he, like everyone, has a few questions — particularly about transportation expenses — that he would like answered by the study, he supports the initial look into regionalization.

"I think it's a good thing on Dan [Durgin]'s part," Valanzola said. "I think he's trying to be proactive."

Valanzola said given the economic climate, regionalization, if accompanied by significant cost savings, could be beneficial.

"I think it makes sense, but it may not necessarily make sense for our districts. I think there's a lot of questions to be asked," Valanzola continued. "I think it's an interesting discussion and I'm looking forward to the study, but I don't know post-presentation where we're headed with this."

"The greater question is what's the state's plan here?" Valanzola asked.

In Durgin's letter, dated Wednesday, Aug. 5, he said, "During the past year we have heard from numerous sources that the state is looking at the possibility of consolidating Massachusetts school districts to better maximize educational opportunities and financial capacity."

Gov. Deval Patrick's School Readiness Bill does explore, "reducing the number of school districts in the K-12 system in order to achieve efficiencies, build capacity and extend the reach of limited resources," as well as greater regional collaboration at all grade levels.

"That's true, but there's nothing solidified in the legislation at the moment," Cooke said. "It's pretty controversial. By no means is this a done deal.

In a July 28 letter from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC), of which Tantasqua is a member, MASC President Debra L. Bibeau outlines the association's priorities, one of which being to "mobilize to protect school districts from being restructured, reorganized or consolidated against their will."

Pending the results of Tobin's cost analysis, regionalization may not be against everyone's will though.

Selectman James Wettlaufer of Holland, also a member of the Holland and Wales Regionalization Planning Committee, said he would like to see the results of the study before standing on one side of the fence or the other.

"What's the benefits and what's the detriment, if there are any, to regionalizing on this level?" Wettlaufer asked. "How can we save money? How can we improve the level of education? And is this the right way for us to go or not?"

Wettlaufer said as a Selectman, he does not have the concern over loss of control over his elementary school that some of the School Committee members are raising.

"We really don't have any control over our elementary schools right now," he said. "We don't set the curriculum, the curriculum's set already."

"I really don't see much loss of control, I see a little more uniformity," Wettlaufer continued. "Really the only authority we have control over is hiring and firing the superintendent."

That uniformity, Wettlaufer said, would help students from all five towns entering Tantasqua Junior High School and High School to be on an even academic playing field with each other.

"I don't think that's necessarily what happens now," Wettlaufer said.

A voting member of the committee that allocated their remaining grant funds to the study, Wettlaufer said, "I know that from the standpoint of the administration, one reason for wanting to see things completely regionalized, K through 12, is simply the number of meetings they have to attend. Another thing too, is the size of the group of people that are deciding all the issues."

There are 37 people between all five Union 61 school committees and the Tantasqua Regional School Committee.

Vice Chairman of the Tantasqua School Committee Sheila Noyes-Miller and member Geoffrey Earls, both of Brimfield, declined to comment on Durgin's letter or the topic of consolidating the two districts.

A telephone message left for Durgin on Monday was not returned as of press time.

News staff writer Christopher Tanguay may be reached at (508) 909-4132, or by e-mail at ctanguay@stonebridgepress.com.

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