To the Editor:
If we care about educational and job opportunities for local students as well as developing a more prosperous and equitable economy, we need to consider the recent report of the Berkshire County Educational Task Force. The report is available online here, with the press release providing a good overview.
The Task Force’s consultants, DMG, drew on their extensive experience in Massachusetts, Vermont and Florida in developing their report. The report focuses on options discussed by local Berkshire educators, officials and community leaders at 32 meetings on Saturday mornings in Dalton over two years… an admirable and appreciated effort by knowledgeable and dedicated people.
The report recommends consolidating administrative functions AND academic oversight into one school district for Berkshire County. Why? Because consolidation would enable the larger entity to negotiate for enhanced vocational-technical training programs, enriched academic curricula options, larger state transportation reimbursements and more effective special education programs across our current small school districts. (The report points out that just sharing administrative functions does not offer change in expanding curricula nor does it decrease costs sufficiently.)
Creating a large Berkshire school district could facilitate early college or early vocational programs in conjunction with BCC, MCLA, and possibly other colleges. The discussions also suggest how to avoid any layoffs. However, due to an increasing number of retirements, retaining and hiring teachers seems more likely than layoffs.
The Task Force could offer useful guidance on providing better facilities and educational opportunities for high school students. In South County, it appears we might begin merging BHRSD with Lee which has expressed openness. Such expansion would enable Monument Mountain Regional High School to be upgraded, perhaps by rebuilding its campus, sooner rather than later. The improved finances of district expansion would overcome the patchwork of tuition-in and choice-in students that currently burdens school budgets like ours and Lenox’s dependent on non-district towns paying much less than half the cost of educating each student. Expanding the district even further with nearby districts especially those without high schools (such as Richmond, Otis, Sandisfield) ensures more equitable support for education and a better plan for building facilities.
Even three districts for Berkshire County (favored by some Task Force members and my own preference), which might include a larger South County school district of approximately 4,400 students, offer many of these possibilities. We could negotiate for an adjunct local campus of the McCann School. Such a campus would share the cost of administration and could broaden access to programs planned by individual schools: agriculture, horticulture, culinary arts, automotive, carpentry, applied technology among others. These are all critical levers to the region’s economic development. With a skilled population, more businesses will develop or relocate to the area.
These are just a few of the issues that will be vital to our planning and budgeting in each town and in each of our current school districts. By studying the information in the Task Force report and exploring specific options that DMG consultants can draw from their experience, we can fully consider our options. Please support the outreach planned during Phase III of the Task Force’s work so we receive the advice that our individual districts could not afford.
(Ms. Gregory is former chair of the Great Barrington Finance Committee and has attended 27 of the 32 meetings of the Berkshire County Educational Task Force as a concerned citizen.)