TOWNSEND — The North Middlesex Regional School’s Expansion Subcommittee joined with representatives from Lunenburg’s Regional Planning Committee to take their first steps Monday night in the possible merger between the two districts.
The meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes, went “as expected,” according to Brendan Grady, a spokesperson for the Lunenburg RPC.
“We are our own community and we have somewhat of an autonomy,” Grady said. “To become part of a greater region presents a number of challenges and to understand how the governance is going to work is important to us.”
Milree Keeling, another Lunenburg RPC member, said the meeting, the first of many, is the beginning of a “marathon.”
After unanimously selecting NMRSD School Committee member Robert Templeton as chairman of the newly formed joint committee, members delved into such topics as the renovation of the current North Middlesex high school, the financial impact to both districts, educational opportunities and governance. Templeton listed a number of goals previously set forth by the subcommittee and asked if those were amenable to the Lunenburg representatives.
“Having goals is nice but I think we need to set objectives,” Grady said. “What are the opportunities? We have to make it immeasurably clear to our towns what the criteria is for doing this. We absolutely have to discuss the financial impact to the towns as well as governance.”
Templeton said that if the joint committee decided to go ahead with the regional expansion, any governance change would go on the ballot and be voted upon by all member towns.
Lunenburg representative Gregory Berthiaume, called the issue of governance “the 1,000-pound gorilla in the middle of the room,” and the committee said they will need to explore what a new regional school committee would look like and what the voting process would be.
“If I was in your shoes I’d want to make sure that I had fair and equal representation on the committee,” said North Middlesex member Sue Fitzgerald. She said she would like to see the joint committee go forward with information-gathering before the next meeting, tentatively scheduled for June 28. “I realize that any formal change in our regional agreement needs to be presented to your town in a way that we would want it presented in our town.”
Items to explore
Among the many labyrinthine items the joint committee will have to explore in the coming months are the need to restructure labor contracts, capital debt, town assessments, teacher retirees from both districts, health insurance not currently in Lunenburg’s school budget and a host of other issues that will present a financial impact on the communities. Also of major importance are the educational opportunities and associated costs, the impact on special needs services, athletics, music and the arts, as well as extra-curricular activities.
Keeling said the goal is to “come out with a mutually agreeable regional agreement. There are many areas and many topics that have to be negotiated in order to have an agreement that we can bring to our voters with confidence that it has a reasonable possibility of passing. It is important to us that we are able to negotiate with you. I’m assuming that any amendment we come up with will be from soup to nuts, rather than just having our name attached to a list.”
Berthiaume asked North Middlesex Superintendent Maureen Marshall to explain her involvement with the state’s School Building Authority. Marshall replied that she is currently the president of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools and served as their representative as many as five years ago.
“That is a position on the advisory council and I am no longer the subcommittee chair of the SBAB,” Marshall said, explaining that the former School Building Authority Bureau has since been taken over by the state Treasurer’s Office. “We have not had a meeting in at least four years.”
Mock school, budget
Marshall said she has met on several occasions with Lunenburg Superintendent Loxi Calmes, who was also present at this week’s meeting.
“We talked about staffing patterns, job descriptions, who does what now? We will not be looking at names as much as we will be looking at positions,” she said. “We might say we have 13 teachers in this specialty and we only need 10. Working together we are trying to cull out the redundancies we have in our budgets.”
A good starting place, Marshall suggested, would be the creation of a mock school, complete with a mock schedule and a mock budget.
“What will this all look like?” she said. “We should create a budget just as if we were already together and present it to the state. In the end, this may not save as much money as some people think.”
Transportation presents another problem, said Keeling, pointing out that there is no good route to take from Lunenburg to Townsend.
Afterward, Calmes called the meeting “positive and productive.”
“Everyone is putting the issues and concerns on the table and it’s good to hear that some of the work we have already done comparing the two districts’ educational programs is where the focus needs to be,” Calmes said. “It’s a lot of work and it’s going to require many more meetings just like this one.”
The joint committee is scheduled to meet on June 28, July 26, Aug. 9 and Aug. 30. The meetings begin at 7 p.m. and the committee set a curfew of 9 p.m.