By Mickey Friedman
August 16, 2014
Monterey’s one-room schoolhouse is just miles from the much larger Monument Mountain Regional High School, but the expected operating costs of less than $162,000 for 2015 seems to engender as much controversy as the planned $51 million dollar renovation of Monument.
While the dream of a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians seems more elusive than ever, perhaps here at home there’s a more likely one-room compromise.
I’m rooting for Monterey. And the small schools of Egremont and New Marlborough.
In the late seventies I found in Monterey a renewed sense of purpose and possibility, rekindling my faith that people from different places, with greatly varying points of view could find common ground. I learned much from Millie Walsh, my Republican friend and owner of the first, maybe last, health food gas station hair salon, the farmers, the fire company, and so many others as we brought the community together to represent the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in an international energy conservation contest.
Keeping neighbors civil and cooperative is never easy but it helps to have a friendly church, a post office where you see each other, and the Monterey General Store and the Roadside Cafe where second-home owners learn to talk to the folks who plow their driveways and mow their lawns. With once-a-month community dinners. And sending your kids to the Monterey School is just part of that process.
In 1986, there were 24 kindergarten students; today, they’re down to five. The number might be artificially low because there’s constant fear the school will close.
As recently as 1919, there were 190,000 one-room schoolhouses in America. Today there are less than 400. We’ve got one in Monterey and another in Egremont.
Shouldn’t we advertise we have really small, local schools for our small people? And that they benefit from such a personal touch.
The one-room schoolhouse harkens back to a less mobile America, a life more rural. When I first made it to the Berkshires, there were two supermarkets in downtown Great Barrington: Aldo’s and the A&P, and the smaller Gorham and Norton. People routinely walked to shop. The kids walked to the Bryant and Searles Schools. Housatonic kids walked to their school.
For some folks there are one hundred and sixty thousand reasons to close the Monterey School. They imagine the money they’ll save ending a too-expensive, and out-of-date oddity. But some see a precious learning environment that must be preserved.
To address these issues, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District (SBRSD) prepared a breakdown of both its student population and the financial costs for educating them. As of October 2012, there were 895 students residing in the District. Thirty-nine come from Alford; 119 from Egremont; 94 from Monterey; 180 from New Marlborough, and 463 from Sheffield.
Sheffield’s children go to Undermountain Elementary for K through 6, then next door to Mount Everett Regional High School. Some imagine shifting whatever can be saved from closing the smaller schools in Egremont, New Marlborough, and Monterey, transferring their students, then using those funds to underwrite the costs of Undermountain and Mount Everett.
Part of the tension, much like that found in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District to the north, revolves around the fact that some towns spend more than others. The SBRSD projected budget for 2015 is $14,925,823, with the Commonwealth kicking in $2,297,896 and $577,500 coming from school choice and other sources. That leaves a total obligation of $12,050,427. Sheffield will pay 53.79 percent or $6,481,925. New Marlborough’s 20.8 percent share is $2,506,489. Egremont will pay $1,391,824 or 11.55 percent. Monterey’s portion is $1,268,910 or 10.53 percent. Alford will kick in 3.34 percent or $402,484.
But the School District’s analysis shows there is less to be saved by closing Monterey than one might imagine. Of the $161,571 budget for 2015, there’s an immediate savings of $10,650 for heating, electric, telephone, and water that won’t be necessary. And potential savings of salaries and health insurance of up to $105,089. But there are salary costs of $17,809 that exist wherever the kids go. And fixed busing costs of $28,023. So subtract the no-savings-to-be-gained categories and we’re talking about a maximum of $115,739, but maybe less, depending on enrollment, etc.
When all is said and done, the District estimates it will cost Alford taxpayers $2.25 to keep the Monterey School open in 2015; $4.22 for Monterey taxpayers; $5.34 for Egremont; $7.70 in New Marlborough; and $15.17 in Sheffield. Such a little for such a lot.
Of course, Monterey could take its money and students and go elsewhere. Or even better, start an online Kickstarter fundraising campaign and ask some of its more generous citizens to support the Keep Our Kindergarten Fund. If Millie Walsh was still alive, and I could still afford to live there, we’d organize an annual benefit concert/healthy community dinner/town parade and raise a small fortune. Reduce the tax burden just a bit and create the one-room compromise.