To the Editor:
Last week, my letter to the editor, “From Crisis to Opportunity for Our Students,” highlighted the efforts of the Berkshire County Education Task Force (BCETF) to help our schools struggling with declining enrollment, increasing expenses, and rising tax rates.
This Op-Ed focuses on South County high schools and the need to reorganize at the high school level. The aim is to create new Vo-Tech and curriculum opportunities based on a more stable and equitable tax base. Doing nothing — or enrolling more out-of-district students — just perpetuates inequitable and unstable financial support for schools. This will only worsen as enrollments continue to shrink.
South County decline
According to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, South County will suffer an overall decline of 33 percent in high school enrollment between 2000 to 2025. Already there has been a significant downturn from 1,563 students in 2000 to 1,234 in 2015. This is projected to decrease to only 1,051 students in 2025, as depicted in the graph:
The reduction among the high schools is widespread: Berkshire Hills RSD (Monument Mountain) is expected to change -22 percent, Lee -39 percent, Lenox -37 percent, Southern Berkshires RSD (Mt. Everett) -56 percent. Since non-district students are included here, South County’s enrollment is actually even lower.
Impact of subsidizing out-of-district students
Some South County schools are bolstering declining enrollment by recruiting out-of-district students. However, this practice just temporarily masks the decline and inflicts a burden on some towns. According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, the average cost of educating K-12 students in South County is $17,500/year as of 2015. For Berkshire Hills, non-district towns contribute an average of $6,500 per student to attend BHRSD. This is $11,000 less than the actual cost. In fact, it’s a 63 percent discount. If all towns paid the same student rate of $17,500 as the three District towns, BHRSD would gain over $2 million.
As it stands, towns such as Great Barrington bear the major brunt of subsidizing out-of-district students. In 2013 and 2014, the town rejected the high school renovation for 650 students. Why? Largely because Great Barrington only had 226 high school students. The tax burden of building the school 60 percent larger than the district student population seemed inappropriate, considering the inequities.
Great Barrington’s tax rate reflects this burden. Of nearly $20 million in taxes raised in 2016, $13.5 million was collected on behalf of the School district. This amounts to 68% of total taxes. Worse yet, the increase in school assessment last year was over $1 million and is projected to be about the same this year. This is not sustainable for Great Barrington, whose taxes are already the highest of any Berkshire town relative to its average income.
Great Barrington taxpayers have no control over this recruitment strategy. Its only recourse has been to vote down the budget at town meetings or wait until a capital expenditure requires a poll vote. This eventuality pits the school against the residents and is not a productive tactic.
Competing for students is a zero-sum game, where one district or town’s gain comes at the price of a loss for another town or district. Isn’t adding out-of-district students an accounting game that requires complex administrative personnel to track? How do these manipulations improve high school education for the county, after all, we live and work in the same area without regard to a school districting?
Instead, shouldn’t we consider consolidating at the high school level? Wouldn’t it be better to make all students in the district eligible for special programs, rather than having to “choice-in” on a “lottery” basis at these greatly discounted rates.
Consider South County’s high school districts. Merging high school districts seems quite possible, as students cross district lines all the time. Boards need to be willing to do so. The four high school geographies are noted by stars in the chart above:
Potential policy alternatives
- DO NOTHING. CONTINUE TO COMPETE AND SQUEEZE DOWN THE ENROLLMENT OF OTHER DISTRICTS. This wastes money, destabilizes education programming, further penalizes towns like Great Barrington and Sheffield. It just kicks the can down the road.
- COMBINE MONUMENT MOUNTAIN HIGH SCHOOL WITH OTHER HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICTS, PHASING OUT NON-DISTRICT ENROLLMENT OVER TIME. This could result in a same size school as today, but would only consist of towns that are full participants of the district, programmatically and financially.
- CONSOLIDATE SOUTH COUNTY. This would combine the four into one high school district. Doing so would eliminate duplications, offer wider access to specialized classes, create a comprehensive vocational program and draw on a larger student population.
Ability to change vs. willingness
The current citizen’s petition seeks to initiate broader discussions of alternatives—to explore possibilities apart from personal and political concerns. Professional assistance might help from the consulting group advising the Berkshire County Education Task Force
The Governor said he would be looking for recommendations from the Task Force. Shouldn’t South County seize this timely opportunity to work with neutral, educational consultants familiar with rural communities?
If we start now, we might have a right-sized high school in 3-4 years!