SAVOY -- After a recent cost-benefit study suggested the town's most expensive budget item -- Savoy's only elementary school -- might be unsustainable, it's up to elected officials and residents whether to proceed with assessing Emma L. Miller Memorial School's future.
Last week, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC), having acted on grant funds attained by the former Board of Selectmen, submitted the study of the Miller Memorial School and the town's finances.
No recommendations are made, but its writers draw conclusions from the facts presented about the K-5 school.
Student numbers have declined from 76 in 2006 to 40 in 2012. Meanwhile, Savoy's tax rate is on the rise -- 5 percent to 16.54 percent in four years -- and education costs make 54 percent of the average family's $2,393 annual tax bill. More than $1 million, or 50 percent, of the town's budget goes toward keeping up the school. At the same time, median income is on the decline among the town's population of 696, while total assessed property value dropped some $2.5 million from 2011 to 2012.
And, because much of the town's property is state-owned, the tax base has little chance for future growth.
Academically, the school's students are receiving "significantly higher than the state average" MCAS scores in both English Language Arts and Math.
A BRPC-led committee was formed last April to evaluate the school, and Thomas Matuszko of BRPC said the commission's study could be central to future talks.
"It's a basis for what ever's next," Matuszko said. "It lays out where you are now and what to think about down the road."
The group, comprising Northern Berkshire School Union, town and school officials, had adopted the mission statement "to determine the impact of the school on the town socially, economically and educationally."
Sending Savoy's students to another district's schools had been considered as a potential option.
But a political shake-up in town last year has put the next step on unsteady footing.
Former Selectman Fred Sawyer was voted out by write-in ballot during 2012 town elections and Selectmen Scott Koczela and David Desmarais resigned as a result -- a sequence of events some have related to the reality of the study itself, which was controversial in town.
BRPC and school district officials are now unsure of what exactly comes next.
"Because of the political situation in Savoy and some staff changes on our end, [the study] has lagged," Matuszko said. "At this juncture, we don't know if there is still a desire to move forward with this thing."
Superintendent of the school Jonathan Lev made note of the discord among different residents Tuesday.
"There is a divide up there and it's very sad," Lev said. "I'm afraid the school will be put in the middle of it."
Lev said he was "absolutely willing to talk" further about the school's future.
BRPC consulted with Lev and made changes to its study based on his suggestions. But Lev isn't convinced that the school can't be maintained. Savoy would still need to pay to send its students elsewhere, he said, and the study doesn't examine the possibility of keeping the school open but reorganizing budgets according to need.
"It comes down to how much it will cost, how much you will save and what's it worth?" Lev said, and stressed that things remain far from clear-cut.
Staff size at the school is currently 14, with one of the lowest student-teacher ratios in the state.
The study itself reads, "It is difficult to quantify the sense of community provided by a local school ... but it is likely that these smaller, very community-oriented schools do contribute to a greater overall sense of community."
Former Selectman Scott Koczela said he hopes the new town officials will continue to examine options.
"There is nothing wrong with a little bit of knowledge, and I hope they continue forward with [the study]," Koczela said. "It's going to seem increasingly expensive to be maintaining a school and full staff for just a small number of students. As always, it'll be up to residents of Savoy."
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