Hancock defends its civic honor

Pittsfield is often considered the farthest-flung outpost from Boston in the state, but the Berkshire County seat has nothing on its tiny neighbor to the west. Indeed, the only way to get to Hancock town center from Pittsfield is to drive west into New York State, winding around some mountains, then head back east into this bucolic village of about 700.

Like the Shakers, whose way of life is showcased at Hancock Shaker Village, the people of Hancock are a frugal, conservative group. At $5.40 per $1,000 of property value, Hancock’s tax rate is one of the lowest in the state. In part, that’s thanks to the ski resorts in and near town. It’s also because the town keeps things simple, with citizens tending to town affairs, as well as their own. There is no highway department or even a gas station in town. The police chief, who also chairs the board of selectmen, has no full-time officers reporting to him. The townspeople themselves built Hancock’s only school, which serves 55 students from kindergarten to sixth grade. The town also tends to keep its goings-on quiet, including what goes on in Renaissance Resorts, a seasonal nudist camp.

Hancock Quick Facts

Founded: Laid out as Jericho by the King of England in 1762, established as Hancock in 1776

Population: 1998 estimate of 575; current estimate of 700 by town assessor

Town Meeting: Open

Facts:

  • Long and narrow on the map, Hancock is about two miles wide and 15 miles long, stretching along the New York Border. The town abuts New Ashford, Lanesborough, Pittsfield, Williamstown, and Richmond, as well as several communities in the Empire State.

  • There are 230 year-round homes and 240 vacation condominiums in Hancock. Development associated with the attractions Jiminy Peak, in Hancock, and Brodie Mountain, in New Ashford–referred to by the ski area’s promoters as the “Irish Alps”–contribute in no small measure to the town’s low tax rate of $5.40 per $1,000 of assessed value, according to Andre Rambaud, assassor for the past 26 years.

But last spring, the good people of Hancock came in for a public scolding from The Berkshire Eagle, the Pittsfield-based newspaper whose editor, David Scribner, is–perhaps not coincidentally–among Hancock’s newer residents. GET IT TOGETHER, HANCOCK, commanded the Eagle, in the headline of an April 19 editorial. “As a functioning town, Hancock is coming unraveled,” the Eagle charged. “Hancock residents seem unwilling or incapable of governing themselves, a shameful example to set.” The editorial tongue-lashing ended with a final admonition: “Shape up, Hancock.”

What disturbed the Eagle were two unrelated events that, in the newspaper’s view, represented abdications of civic duty. Only two people attended the annual town nominating caucus on April 12, and neither one of those two citizens was a candidate for office. That left the May 14 town election ballot blank, with write-in votes the only hope for filling town posts. Also alarming the Eagle was a proposal before the May 7 town meeting–the result of a petition by a small group of parents–to close the Hancock Elementary School. If passed, the children of Hancock would have to go to school in a nearby community, in Berkshire County or possibly even New York State, with the town paying tuition.

To the outside observer, the underattended caucus and push to close the town’s only school might seem like the earmarks of an ominous trend–signs of a town on the brink of closing up shop. But residents say the caucus, the town meeting, and the election offer proof that Hancock is a community that’s more willing and capable of governing itself than most. Thanks to its size and a citizenry that becomes passionately involved when–and only when–the situation calls for it, Hancock has preserved the small-town character that is only a distant memory for many communities. And no cause could be more calculated to rouse the slumbering soul of the community than saving the schoolhouse that is, with the exception of town hall, Hancock’s only civic institution.

The Eagle treated the caucus and the school-closing controversy as of a piece. For locals, however, the two had nothing in common. The caucus they see as evidence not of apathy but rather of a political culture healthy enough not to take formalities of civic life too seriously.

Most people in town eventually serve in some official capacity, according to Sherman Derby, a seventh-generation resident of Hancock who is both police chief and chairman of the board of selectmen. At the moment, residents seem satisfied with the incumbents, so there wasn’t much need to drum up new candidates. Then the caucus was held, atypically, on a Thursday night–a big shopping night in the area; in a small town, such details can make a difference. Finally, a lot of otherwise stalwart voters simply forgot, according to Derby and other town hall regulars.

The proof that these explanations were not just cover for voter disinterest came on Election Day: 185 of 443 registered voters wrote in their choice of candidates, returning 11 incumbents and only two newcomers to the posts of constable, tax collector, town clerk, treasurer, library trustee, cemetery commissioner, moderator, and selectman, as well as to the school committee and boards of health, finance, and planning.

“That’s a 42 percent turnout,” points out lifelong Hancock resident Marjorie Feathers, who also notes that some neighboring towns voted at half that rate. “That doesn’t say we’re not interested.”

The school issue, however, was a different matter. Coverage in the Eagle unleashed a small flood of letters from Hancock. Ann Maynard Snow was one of a small minority of letter writers who argued for closing the school. Despite low student-teacher ratios, one of the four children in the school’s kindergarten was held back, she alleged. In addition, she wrote, many parents choose to send their children to schools in nearby Lanesborough and Williamstown so they will get used to interacting with children from a larger community. (Snow also claimed that the town would save money by closing the school, a point vigorously contested by local officials.)

Most of the letters were from parents writing in support of Hancock’s tiny school, some very movingly. Elizabeth Kroboth wrote that she sent her son to kindergarten in another town through the school choice program because the school was closer to their home. But the boy cried every morning. “I was sick at my stomach every time the phone rang during the day, fearing that it was the school calling and there was another problem,” she wrote. After transferring her son to the Hancock school for first grade, the family saw a complete change in him, which she attributes to “the closeness of the children, the teachers, and everyone involved in the school.”

Still, defenders of the Hancock school felt they had a fight on their hands.”For two months before the vote, we were truly worried,” says Liza Barrett, mother of two children in the Hancock school who is also a seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher at Mount Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown, where Hancock school graduates continue their education after sixth grade. In 1999, at the request of the regional school committee, Barrett wrote a report evaluating the readiness of Hancock students for the high school, and townspeople consider her an authority on the subject. Barrett also responded to Snow in the pages of the Eagle, arguing that the small school may lack some of the resources of a larger one but that Hancock teachers and administrators were “willing to do whatever it would take to meet the needs of their students–even beyond their own school doors.”

Barrett wasn’t the only one worried about the school vote. Feathers, who is a retired teacher and former school committee member, feared what she considers the frugal element in town, which might see closing the school as a money-saving move. Her mother had been a school committee member long ago, and Feathers can still recall a school committee vote–in the 1940s, she thinks–not to allow the lone teacher in what was then a one-room schoolhouse to use a hot plate; it cost too much for the electricity. In Hancock, Feathers contends, frugality sometimes borders on “cheap.”

Cheap or not, money is still a sensitive topic. As in any small town, schools make up the single largest item in Hancock’s budget. Selectman Derby argues that the Mount Greylock regional school district–the town is not a member, but pays tuition for students it sends to the high school–doesn’t pay close enough attention to Hancock. He thinks the town’s students might make out just as well going across the state border to New Lebanon’s high school. And that would save the town money, Derby contends: Sending the children to Mount Greylock costs $7,300 per pupil; New Lebanon would cost $5,000. Either way it came out, the Hancock School vote would “put [regional Superintendent William] Ballen and the management on notice to be more attentive to the parents’ problems in the school system they manage,” says Derby. Ballen¹s response to Derby: “All he cares about is money.”

Unlike the caucus, for town meeting Hancock residents knew they had to show up, and 197 of them did. The meeting itself had political twists and turns. Town counsel read her opinion that the vote would be non-binding; state law gives the school committee the power to determine whether or not to close the school. This ruling was deflating to the school’s critics. But then town meeting voted handily to expand the town’s school committee from three members to five, for the town election of 2002. A town meeting vote to close the school would give opponents a platform for running for school committee, where they could finish the job. Feathers still feared for the school.

But parent after parent stood up to tell personal tales of their children faring well in the small-school environment. Less than a handful disagreed. When the vote came, only six townspeople supported the school-closing proposal. Town treasurer Joan Burdick, who spoke in favor of closing the school, said she was “more or less” convinced that her neighbors are satisfied with the educational status quo. But for herself, she says, “Thank God for school choice. My dyslexic granddaughter went to Williamstown Elementary, and now she is mainstreamed into regular classes.”

For defenders of the local school, the vote was pure vindication. “I was so exhilarated when I came home that night,” says Feathers. “I’d heard for years how we ought to get rid of our school. The new people in town finally got a chance to hear how great it is.” For Barrett, retired high school teacher Lola Green said it all when she observed, as Barrett remembers it, that “Hancock School lets our children stay children a little bit longer.”

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Closing the school would have amounted to “a loss of community,” says Feathers. Barrett concurs. “I think what people learned was that we have something rare and precious,” Barrett says. “It’s a real community school, and that’s why I love this place.”

Contributing writer Mary Carey is a reporter for The Daily Hampshire Gazette.