It is an immutable law of physics that expanding entities experience growing pains of one kind or another. But as Berkshire County residents are increasingly discovering, shrinking also entails a certain degree of discomfort.
Such is the case with key county statistics that show discouraging signs of decline in its full-time population, its birth rate and its loss of manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years. Those factors have contributed to troubling drops in school enrollment.
Berkshire County school districts saw an enrollment drop of a staggering 22 percent between 2000 and 2015. The UMass Donahue Institute, has projected an additional decline of 11 percent between 2015 and 2025, with substantial additional enrollment losses predicted over the following decade.
The decrease in enrollments will no doubt precipitate all manner of unpleasant consequences for the county’s school districts. Smaller student bodies will mean fewer academic offerings, fewer top-flight facilities and weakened athletic and extracurricular options. All of those factors will limit student options for engagement. Common sense tells us they will weaken student readiness for higher education and preparedness for the work force.
Perhaps worst of all, fewer students will surely erode the political will to invest in our schools, leaving the county’s children in a state of limbo when it comes to having access to first-rate teachers and facilities. After all, a pair of referendums on $50-million-plus renovation projects for Monument Mountain Regional High School failed within a span of 12 months. One of the reasons given by some of those who voted against the projects: why spend so much money on a new high school when there might not be the bodies to fill it a generation down the line?
All of this is occurring amid a backdrop of stagnant middle-class wages and flat or shrinking revenues, even as education costs continue their inexorable rise. Something has to be done. Attracting young people and families with children in far greater numbers to the Berkshires is complicated — perhaps even impossible. So we are left with making our schools more viable with fewer resources.
That’s where the Berkshire County Education Task Force comes in. The task force has no legal authority but it’s made up of educators, public officials and members of the business community who are passionate about saving the county’s education system.
Last month, the task force made what the chair of the Lee School Committee, herself a member of task force, called a “shocking” recommendation: the county’s 19 school districts should be merged into one countywide district.
The task force has said from the get-go that its primary consideration is improving the education of the county’s children. The task force does concede that in seeking more favorable economies of scale, it wants to make the system more fiscally sustainable in an era of limited resources. Those two goals are perfectly compatible since long-term sustainability will also improve educational opportunities for students.
One member of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee recently lashed out at the task force, calling it “a total wild goose chase” led by “some select group of random people.” Others on social media, however, have been less responsible than the school committee member, questioning the motives of task force members and suggesting they’re determined to push their agendas in defiance of the will of the people.
Such comments do a disservice to the members of the task force, which has no legal authority to make changes to the school districts and whose unpaid members have spent countless Saturday mornings over the last two years laboring over details and policy papers. The charge of the panel is to study the issues surrounding the sustainability of the county’s school districts and make a recommendation for action based on the collection of data and projections.
Among those data and projections are current and future student enrollment numbers in individual districts. Currently, the county’s 19 school districts serve about 15,000 students (soon to be 14,000), fewer than several individual city school districts in Massachusetts. Berkshire County has the same number of districts as the entire state of Delaware, which has large rural areas in its southern half and a student population of about 156,000.
The numbers here are startling. In the Southern Berkshire Regional School District alone, there were almost 1,100 students among the district’s five towns as recently as 2000. Now there are about 650. By 2025, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education projects there will be no more than 462 students in grades pre-k to 12 — a loss of almost 60 percent since 2000.
The questions about sustainability are obvious. According to the projections, there will be 127 students enrolled in grades 9 to 12 in Mount Everett Regional High School in Sheffield in 2025. How do officials operate a comprehensive public high school with such a low enrollment? Curricular offerings would be confined to the basics. With a senior class of only about 32 students, advanced placement and elective classes would become a thing of the past; either that or those classes would be composed of two or three students guided by a very expensive teacher. Furthermore, athletic and after-school offerings would by necessity become sparse.
Mount Everett is the smallest comprehensive 9-12 school in the county but even Lee and Lenox are projected to have only about 200 students in their high schools by 2025. Might those tiny high schools struggle to maintain their accreditations from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which insists that accredited public high schools offer “challenging and measurable 21st century learning expectations for all students”? That’s not an attractive situation if you’re aiming to attract families with children to the region.
The task force has characterized its recommendation for a single countywide district as “aspirational.” That’s probably a nod to the reality that it will be a tough sell and that perhaps the other options for reorganization — a single school union for the county or three separate consolidated districts — will offer the promise of maintaining more local control, while allowing for sharing of services, improved economies of scale and the staving off of academic ruin.
Whatever happens, two things are indisputable: something must be done to make public education in the Berkshires sustainable; and, like the embattled referees in a youth soccer game, the members of the Berkshire County Education Task Force are to be commended for stepping up to volunteer their time and for subjecting themselves to heckling from those on the sidelines.