AMHERST - Amherst is already the lead town in a regional school district serving students in the seventh through 12th grades from Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury.
But that district could extend its reach by including the smaller towns' elementary schools.
Such a move could bring savings in administration and transportation costs as well as some educational benefits, says Amherst School Committee Chairman Andrew Churchill.
Now, separate committees oversee elementary schools in each of the towns.
They include an Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee and Union 28, to which Leverett and Shutesbury belong, along with New Salem, Erving and Wendell.
Under regionalization, there would be only one school committee and one administration overseeing schools in all four towns.
Churchill does not foresee schools closing under the plan.
"I assume it would be probably more cost-effective to keep the Shutesbury and Leverett elementary schools than to bus them down here, but this is all preliminary," he said.
As the state reimburses 90 percent of regional transportation costs, it would likely reimburse that amount of elementary school transportation costs if the four towns were to regionalize, Churchill said.
That would be a plus, he believes, as Amherst now pays 100 percent of elementary school transportation costs.
There may be a compelling educational benefit as well.
"An issue that we run into is that right now we have seven elementary schools feeding into the middle school. Five of those are in Amherst and Pelham, and they work together on curriculum issues and alignment," Churchill said.
"But in Leverett and Shutesbury, it's harder to get teachers together, because they're not in our district."
Churchill stressed that the goal would not be to have "cookie cutter" schools.
"We would have the kind of discussions around curriculum that would make it easier at the seventh-grade level when all these kids come together."
Leverett and Shutesbury would need approval of at least three of five of Union 28's five member towns to dissolve the union, in Churchill's understanding.
A bid in 1994 by Leverett to join the Amherst-Pelham district failed, because Shutesbury declined.
"I don't know what the politics were or are," Churchill said. "But I think everyone agrees it would be worth putting a committee together and (possibly receiving) $25,000 from the state to discuss the pros and cons and to figure out what would and would not work."
Too little information
For now, residents and school officials alike are laboring under a high level of concern and a low level of information, said Farshid Hajir, chairman of the Leverett School Committee.
"It's complete darkness for most people," he said.
One proposal making the rounds is having one school district for all the towns in Franklin County, Hajir said. Asked how Leverett residents would react to that, he said, "They would be extremely unhappy, to put it mildly."
Towns in the county have problems that don't affect Leverett, including declining enrollment and poor MCAS scores, he said.
Most residents are happy with the elementary school and the regional agreement with Amherst, and Leverett's Spanish program has been a model for other towns, he said.
"The fear is that somehow our specialness will not be taken into account if the state forces from on high some kind of division," he said.
Scott Hartl, who has three children at the elementary school and moved to Leverett four years ago because of the school, maintains a growing list of concerned parents.
"We've all seen examples of policy momentum steamrolling over local contexts," he said. "It's in the best interest of everyone to move from this state of high concern, low information, to narrow the field of concern and deliberate based on facts about the process."