From crisis to opportunity for our students

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By Thursday, Feb 16 Letters  5 Comments

To the Editor:

Two dozen Berkshire County Education Task Force (BCETF) volunteers have been meeting every third Saturday morning for the past 18+ months. These prominent educators, administrators, school committee chairs and planning officials have attended more than 25 meetings to-date. Why?

They have persisted because — facing rapidly declining enrollments — Berkshire education is at a critical state. Alongside, teachers and programs have been reduced significantly due to program losses including “foreign languages, instructional technology, curricula development.” Worse yet, voids are not being addressed. South County still has no Vo-Tech school while North County specialized schools are growing with more than 630 students. It became a concern as while I attended these meetings as a concerned citizen.

These mismatches and declines result in many schools operating at two-thirds capacity. Rising costs (27 percent over 10 years), affected by inflation, health care benefits, special education services and crumbling infrastructures have stressed funding. The concomitant rise in taxes (47 percent) has pushed most towns against levy limits as they approach their maximums.

The stakes are high: education affects how we interact with others, employment, service quality, leadership and management and the financial health of individuals, families and communities.

So where are we? At the conclusion of the Phase I report, Task Force groups accomplished a formidable task. They met with nearly every Selectboard and School Committee up and down the County totaling more than 45 presentations this winter. They recognized this is every town’s problem and opportunity.

The findings “shout out,” what improvements should be made? At what cost? And who should pay?

Scenarios are being explored through a Phase II study. At the BCETF August meeting, Governor Baker recognized the County had unique challenges with its declining enrollment and rising costs. Through BCETF’s advocacy, the State approved $150,000 to explore alternatives. This work will be a unique resource.

How will towns and schools use this information due in June? Who will initiate discussions? The earlier we are involved and acknowledge the issues, the better we will understand our options. Don’t we owe this strategic planning to our young people and their futures?

To get started, I have submitted a citizen’s petition for consideration at Great Barrington Town Meeting in May (see a copy of the petition below). The petition requests that our Select Board and School Committee take the necessary steps to create a formal delegation of citizens, town officials and school committee members to open discussions with other towns in order to create an expanded regional high school district.

The goals are to increase programs using funds from duplicate functions for South County towns that wish to participate. By expanding the district, we would have the necessary enrollment to support academic courses, arts and music programs which are typically vulnerable to budget cuts. Specialized programs including potential Vo-Tech facilities, wherever located, would be accessible to all district students.

I call on voters from other towns to introduce similar citizen proposals to their school boards such as the Southern Berkshire Regional School District (Sheffield, Egremont, Monterey, New Marlborough, Alford) as well as nearby Lee. Richmond, Otis and Sandisfield which are NOT district members could do the same. With this expansion, choice-in or tuition-in programs would no longer be needed since all students would come from towns in the expanded district. This way, an equitable financial base for schools like Monument Mountain Regional High School could be addressed within a new, to-be-determined context.

If we do not resolve strategic issues, we defer precious time in planning a better future for our students.   When we engage in upcoming budget discussions, the urgent need for an expanded high school district will become evident.

Please voice your concerns to focus on our high schools to School Committees and Select Boards. Introduce a citizen’s petition to promote broad-based collaboration in support of our students, our economic development, our financial sustainability and the general health of the County.

Next week, I will present the specific demographics in South County that highlight the need for strategic planning.

Sharon Gregory

Great Barrington

CITIZEN PETITION FOR VOTERS IN GREAT BARRINGTON

 

Petition to the Great Barrington Select Board and Berkshire Hills Regional District School Committee:

We, the people of Great Barrington are submitting this petition for a vote at the next Town Meeting.

WHEREAS:

  • Public school enrollment has steadily declined over the past 15 years and is projected to continue to do so,
  • Students no longer have access to a full complement of courses needed to prepare for their careers,

Further, there is no vocational school within reasonable proximity of South County

  • Yet expenses continue to increase due to many factors.

BE IT RESOLVED: The School Committee and the Select Board take necessary steps to create a formal delegation of school committee members, town officials and citizens to open discussion with other School Districts and towns to create an expanded regional high school.

The goals are to increase the education curriculum while reducing overhead costs across the South County for towns that wish to participate. The aim is to expand Vo-Tech options and academic courses which have disappeared.

We believe this is a necessary step to “right-size” our high school. Expanding our high school district would eliminate the need for, and inequitable tax impact of, choice-in and tuition-in programs that generate administrative work and financial imbalances. On the positive side, district expansion should stabilize educational support for our participating communities.

Signed:

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5 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Sheela Clary says:

    I wish I could understand the bottom line here. What “other school districts” are you proposing folding into BHRSD if not Lee, Lenox, Richmond, SBRSD? It sounds like you are asking citizens who live in those towns to propose a similar petition at their meetings, to set up similar expansions? Or to join forces with BHRSD? I can’t say what you want to do after reading this description, and you’ve not made the argument that an expanded district would lead to the adoption of more vocational options or more academic options. How does one lead to the other? Is this about avoiding tax increases or getting real about serving all of our students equitably?

  2. Sharon Gregory says:

    I advocate BHRSD expanding the regional high school with any combination of the districts/towns. If other towns also advocate an expansion, and thus, the possibility of combining with BHRSD, town officials would get the message and push harder to work through solutions. Creating a negotiating committee beyond the school board and superintendent could broaden the discussions which tend to be political and personal from my discussions with people inside and outside the districts. The resulting broader base should provide more educational options. A fallout would be a more equitable distribution of school assessments, using a broader base of in-district towns.

    Right now, Berkshire Hills’ high school, Monument Mountain, only has 356 students (from the 3 town district) out of 556. The others come from choice-in or tuition in programs (tuition towns are without high schools) at a fraction of what it costs the three district towns on a per student basis. The Dept. of Education sets a very old and low choice-in transfer rate ($) and further, does not allow these towns to participate in any of the capital spending. I believe that is a major reason that the high school renovation was voted down. Creating a larger district should address providing a greater breadth of programs for a wider population (all of the high school students from towns that join the districts would access the resulting combined programs). This larger district would also create a more equitable base of financial support without the three district towns supplementing non-district town and their students.

    1. Jim Stark says:

      Sharon, In the Phase 1 Educational Task Force Report, I was disappointed not to see any reference to the antiquated and discredited method for determining state aid to schools, i.e., including per capita assessed valuation as well as income in the formula. As Alan Thiel notes in the Berkshire Edge, “taxes are paid with income not property” (nor, I might add, with cattle or bales of hay). Relative prices are determined by ability to pay and willingness to pay. In the case of southern Berkshire, residents of modest means are forced to bid against well-heeled NYers if they want to continue to live here, and then the higher prices they live with are held against them when the state decides how much it will kick in for a new school or Chapter 70.

      1. Sharon Gregory says:

        These formulas are so complex, I’m not sure anyone can comment on them anymore, mostly because no one understands them. I’m not on the committee, but I’ve gone to almost all of their meetings for the past 18 months, every third Saturday, 9-12 in Dalton. I’ll pass on your thoughts to the Chair if you’d like.

  3. Jim Stark says:

    Thank you. I think the issue is relevant, and not nearly so unfathomable as may be generally assumed.

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