Consultant cites benefits to merger of Clarksburg, Mass., Stamford schools

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STAMFORD — After months of interviews, research, and analysis, a consultant has found potential benefit in a merger between elementary schools in Stamford and Clarksburg, Mass.

Public Consulting Group's feasibility report on an interstate merger between elementary schools in Clarksburg and Stamford will be presented at a joint town meeting on Wednesday night.

"PCG believes there may be educational benefit to a merged school district with new grade configurations," according to the report, which was posted Monday on the schools' websites. "For both schools, it would offer the potential for additional educational offerings and expanded peer groups. It would also offer greater opportunities for collaborative planning and professional learning for teachers."

The meeting is slated for 6:30 p.m. at Clarksburg School, and will feature a presentation from Public Consulting Group, followed by a question-and-answer session with town residents.

Although residents won't be asked to vote on their preferred path forward on Wednesday — that won't come until special town meetings tentatively scheduled for June — the meeting will provide the clearest look yet at what a two-town, interstate district would look like.

"There's a lot of things that need to be answered, but there's some really clear recommendations," said North Berkshire School Union Superintendent John Franzoni.

The feasibility study was funded by the state legislatures in Massachusetts and Vermont. It was launched in January by Public Consulting Group, which interviewed an array of parents, teachers, district staff, and other stakeholders in both towns.

The "recommendations roadmap," which will be presented on Wednesday, can be viewed ahead of time at the Clarksburg School website. Released last month, a summary of the consultant's initial findings can also be found at the Clarksburg School website.

There are three basic paths forward: the schools can remain separate; the schools can share district staff but retain their same grade structure; or, the schools can merge on the grade level, having Stamford host prekindergarten through second grade and Clarksburg serve students from fourth to eighth grade.

"Each option includes potential opportunities along with significant challenges. It will be up to both towns to determine the approach that provides the greatest positive impact for their respective communities," the report states.

Option One

If the towns decide to stand pat, there is still work to be done. The consultant recommends that Clarksburg seek to further share services within the North Berkshire School Union and with North Adams Public Schools in areas such as "food services, transportation, and/or bulk purchasing."

Stamford would need to work with the state of Vermont to determine if, under the pressures of Act 46, it can remain an independent school district. The consultant also suggests that the town assess if there are families who live in Stamford but have chosen private school, and work to recruit those students into the public school system.

Option Two

The towns could create a single district, but keep both schools separate. Clarksburg residents would still attend Clarksburg School, and Stamford residents would attend Stamford Elementary.

The consultant states that this option is not viable.

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"The complexity of merging central office functions does not realize enough benefits to make it an attractive approach. Cost savings would be the primary rationale for this approach," the report states. "However, our analysis suggests that cost savings would be minimal, and this approach may even potentially result in an increase in administrative costs given additional reporting requirements and potential loss of choice student revenue in Clarksburg."

Option Three

The two towns would form a single district, under the umbrella of the North Berkshire School Union, of which Clarksburg is already a member.

The merger has been more than a year in the making.

For Stamford, finding partners in education is a pressing issue spurred by Vermont's Act 46, which has forced schools across the state to merge and consolidate resources.

But a merger with Clarksburg poses a plethora of obstacles.

For example, the towns would have to decide on a structure for school committee oversight. Discrepancies between Massachusetts and Vermont curriculum and standards would have to be reconciled, with the consultant recommending that Stamford be aligned to Massachusetts standards. The schools' approach to special education would also need to be unified.

How each building's infrastructure needs will be paid for would also have to be addressed.

But an interstate agreement also offers educational rewards.

For Stamford, it could result in the elimination of multi-grade classrooms. For Clarksburg, it could open up opportunities for pre-kindergarten education. And for both districts, the merger could lead to more extra curricular opportunities.

"Close collaboration with and guidance from the Massachusetts Department and Elementary and Secondary Education and the Vermont Agency of Education will be critical in the next phase of these efforts," the report states.

The cost savings will largely depend on how the schools choose to limit class sizes and the number of students allowed to attend from outside the district via school choice.

If the towns decide to move forward with a merger, the consultant recommends the town hire another consultant for a period of about 24 months to help the process move forward and address unanswered questions, ranging from employee union contracts to bus routes.

"This is not easy work and will take significant effort, determination, and leadership to achieve a successful outcome," the report concludes.

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.

This story has been modified to clarify the recommendations made in the consultant's report.


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