Future school consolidation: The drawbacks and benefits

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By Thursday, Oct 2 Learning, News  2 Comments
David Scribner
Studies have examined the feasibility of school consolidation in Berkshire County, including the merging of programs of Mt. Everett Regional High School in Sheffield (shown above) with those of Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington.

With little more than a month until the November 4 vote on the revised proposal for a $51 million renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School, public debate over the project has become crowded with a field of passionate advocates, equally energetic opponents, a flood of new questions, a toxic stew of online diatribes accusing the School Committee and Berkshire Hills administration of deliberately deceiving voters, and even an alternative renovation plan.

One of the questions raised by skeptics of the renovation is whether Berkshire Hills should pursue a consolidation with neighboring school districts, some of whose facilities may be under-populated, rather than adding space to the 46-year-old Monument Mountain complex at considerable expense to taxpayers.

The option most frequently mentioned is a merger with sprawling Southern Berkshire Regional School District up to 30 miles down the road (depending on where you live) that serves students from five rural towns. Mt. Everett Regional High’s campus in Sheffield is in better shape and its student enrollment is fewer. Berkshire Hills’ student population is set to level off at around 600 in the coming years (Monument was built for 570) but most student population numbers in Berkshire County are expected to decline. Let’s put everyone together, some have said, thus avoiding a tax hike brought on by a full-scale renovation.

“Every so many years communities get together and talk about consolidation,” said Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon. “There are shelves and file cabinets filled with studies that go back 30 to 40 years.”

A sketch of the proposed renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School. Courtesy of Symmes, Maini & McKee Associates

A sketch of the proposed renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School. Courtesy of Symmes, Maini & McKee Associates

The last consolidation study, Dillon said, was conducted in 2009 by consultant MGT of America, funded by a state grant; it was a $25,000 study initiated by the Berkshire Hills, Southern Berkshire and Lee-Tyringham districts. The study found that besides significant administrative and other cost savings of pulling the three districts together into one, more varied programming could be provided to students. But the study also gave warning: “…the practical steps to such a consolidation are formidable.” It further indicated that while perhaps economically and educationally beneficial for students K through 8, high schools required their own buildings, citing “the inherent fear of loss of historical identity and wholesome rivalry.”

With regard to the high schools, the study went a step further: “Having three high school sites opens up the possibility of a more creative programming to address the needs and interests of students…program improvements should not be hampered by the limits of having only one high school building.”

A Massachusetts Department of Education planning study used MGT’s findings to say that consolidation would provide economic and programming benefits, but added that transportation costs — already significant among these rural districts — would increase.

The study also appeared to treat the human cost of excessive distances as an externality, removed from the economic analysis. Dillon says he views the MGT study as weak for this reason. “It (transportation) is the elephant in the room,” he said, and expensive — not just for taxpayers, but in the “psychological and emotional costs to parents and kids.”

“How long do you want your 7-year-old on a bus?” he added.

A report on school bussing practices in a 2000 edition of Rural Education Issue Digest said that while there is not much research about the effect of long bus rides on students, at least one study showed lowered achievement scores for every hour spent on a bus. Score dips were higher for 4th graders than 8th and 11th graders.

Transportation isn’t the only downside of consolidation. Studies in a number of states indicate that children living at the poverty level benefit from attending smaller schools.

“If you are a student coming from a poor household, you are more likely to do better academically in a small school environment than in a large school environment,” Kai Schafft, director of the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Penn State University told the Des Moines Register in 2011. Iowa has recently seen several rounds of consolidation. “And with increased broadband connectivity and online classes,” Schafft added, “there’s less and less of a case these days that only larger schools can offer a broad array of academic programming.”

In 2005, the Berkshire Hills district consolidated its K through 8 programs into two new buildings next to the high school, increasing the transportation budget as it buses children from three towns to its regionalized campus.

From left, Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon and School Committee Chairman Stephen Bannon.

From left, Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon and School Committee Chairman Stephen Bannon.

Dillon, who has been Superintendent for six years, echoes the MGT study when he says that consolidation is complicated, but the need to do something about rising costs is urgent. It’s why Berkshire Hills recently teamed up with five other districts in the Berkshire Shared Services Project, brainchild of state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. The Project aims to stretch dollars by sharing all kinds of services over the 500-square mile span of the six districts. The districts have about 4,000 students among them.

If consolidation of high schools were ever to be considered, sharing services is where it has to start, Dillon said. Rather than “framing this as a study,” he added, this Project is a way to pick the “low-hanging fruit.”

Among the recommendations of the MGT study is collaboration between districts, something that the districts have already been doing to some extent. The Project will take this up a notch, Dillon says.

Services shared might be anything from toilet paper to specialists, to electricity and oil, he said. Buying in bulk will help the districts save. So will things like sharing professional development classes and curriculum directors. The Project is seeking a $300,000 grant to implement its work. The deadline for submission is in early October.

“Resources are scarce,” Dillon added, an educator and administrator for over 18 years. “The work of schooling is extraordinarily more complicated than it was 20 or 40 years ago. There was a time that schools would not meet the needs of kids that they didn’t feel like meeting.”

The media/library center envisioned for a renovated Monument Mountain High School. Illustration courtesy of SMMA.

The media/library center envisioned for a renovated Monument Mountain High School. Illustration courtesy of SMMA.

Changing times have forced creative solutions. Rep. Pignatelli had the Shared Services vision after Lee-Tyringham Superintendent Jake McCandless left the district for Pittsfield. “There was a vacancy,” said Pignatelli, whose Lenox district has become dependent on school choice students for state reimbursements, “and I thought, can we share a superintendent?”

That didn’t happen; an interim superintendent was installed. But Pignatelli’s idea was set in motion by the grant application, and brainstorming within the six districts to find savings in a landscape of rising education budgets and shrinking enrollments. Pignatelli noted that the Central Berkshire District is considering closing two of its elementary schools due to low enrollment and low population projections.

Consolidation has become unpopular enough, however, that the Rural School and Community Trust in Washington, D.C., has a “Consolidation Fight-Back Tool Kit.” Parents, for example, were in an uproar last year when a Central Berkshire School Committee member proposed closing Berkshire Trail Elementary School in Cummington.

And the year before that, parents whose students attended the three small outlying elementary schools in Monterey, Egremont and New Marlborough, of the Southern Berkshire District mounted a successful campaign to keep their schools open rather than have their children bused to the district’s Undermountain Elementary School in Sheffield.

“We’re very parochial,” Pignatelli said of the Berkshires. “We have our own little fiefdoms and we want to protect our boundaries.”

Many residents treasure small schoolhouses like those in Monterey and Egremont, fighting for years to keep them open over the opposition of successive school boards.

Martin West, an assistant professor at Harvard University who specializes in the politics of K- 12 education in America is the co-author, with Christopher Berry of the University of Chicago, of “Growing Pains: The School Consolidation Movement and Student Outcomes.” Their study of this major restructuring of American education between the 1930s and 1970s found that larger schools were a detriment to students’ education and wages they would earn later in life.

West says he is “cautious about applying any set of research to any community.” But, he said, “the evidence [regarding the benefit of smaller schools] is consistent enough that it should be incorporated into decisions.”

West further stated that, while smaller schools may be better, there was not much evidence that enhanced school facilities made a difference in student outcomes.

Regionalization “scares the daylights out of people,” Pignatelli added. “But we don’t have sustainable models going forward.”

The MGT study also recommended one superintendent for the three districts, and to find ways to share and reduce “business operations.” It suggested cutting buildings and grounds supervisors and technology administrators.

In the vast world of education research, however, there is at least one paper that says saving money by cutting superintendents is a mythology. A larger district will then require, and hire, it said, “more mid-level administrators.”

State Rep. William F. 'Smitty' Pignatelli.

State Rep. William F. ‘Smitty’ Pignatelli.

In Pignatelli’s model, however, “it won’t cost anyone their job, no one will be fired. We’re taking baby steps.” There should be conversations, he added, about sharing administrators, possibly by not replacing those who leave.

“The test will be administrative vacancies,” he said, “and schools can still maintain their identities. When someone retires, let’s have the conversation. That’s where the taxpayers should hold them accountable when the time comes.”

“Think about the next generation of kids,” he said. Pignatelli hopes this project will be one of the shining accomplishments of his service. He is concerned that without this collaborative action, there may be a rude awakening if the state takes the reins, telling towns what to do. “Let’s drive this bus, not be a passenger,” he said. “You don’t want the state driving the bus. We need to take control right now.”

The MGT study concurs, even evoking New England’s colonial history, it’s independent and feisty past: “It would be wiser to consolidate on one’s own terms than to have to comply with mandates that might be highly distasteful…actions must begin now or this issue of consolidation will continue to simmer and frustrate for years to come — or until the matter is no longer one of community option.”

Different districts “have to see an advantage and have to want to do it,” said Berkshire Hills School Committee Chair Steve Bannon. “So far, it hasn’t happened. I’ve been involved in three talks with districts, and it’s not as easy as it sounds.”

Southern Berkshire School Committee Chair Carl Stewart cites population declines across the county, and the loss of student populations. “If I had to guess, somewhere down the road something like that is going to happen,” he said. “If the population goes down by 10 percent in 10 years, that’s a loss of 400 students. That’s a school building for some of those (six) districts.”

Undermountain Elementary Schoolin Sheffield, part of the complex of buildings that hosts Mt. Everett Regional High and Middle schools.

Undermountain Elementary Schoolin Sheffield, part of the complex of buildings that hosts Mt. Everett Regional High and Middle schools.

The Mt. Everett School building in Sheffield, which serves as both an elementary and a high school, is divided into separate wings. The middle and high school wing has 660 students, Stewart said, about 220 of those are in grades 9 through 12. The building was designed to hold 1,100 students.

Stewart said residents without school-age children are less inclined to support the schools. “If population continues to decline,” he said, “people get angry about paying taxes when they have no skin in the game…”

Transportation is already an issue in the far-flung Southern Berkshire district, Stewart said. Distant Monterey has a tiny schoolhouse that serves kindergarten and first grade, and has for years resisted efforts at consolidation. Transportation is sometimes an issue for older students in extracurricular activities, and their parents. “Athletics is a big part of every school,” he said.

Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart of Alford.

Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee Chairman Carl Stewart of Alford.

The Shared Services Project will likely expand educational programming for Mt. Everett, said Stewart. The high school can’t offer as many AP courses as Monument High, for instance, and Mt. Everett students may be able to take AP classes, perhaps even online.

Pignatelli is “very committed to education,” Stewart said, adding that the idea for the project was inspired because it will take advantage of “what districts do better than others, are better equipped to do, or in a better geographic position to do.”

Bannon calls the Shared Services Project a “huge step” for districts to decide “where we have common ground.” Like Dillon, Bannon says that cooperating is a first step to approaching the consolidation quagmire. “It’s one step at a time.”

Bannon also said the MGT study’s neglect of the transportation problem made it incomplete in such a “huge geographic area.”

“K through 4 parents don’t want their children in larger schools,” Bannon added, “but consolidation is a hot topic because of high costs.”

“Schools are employee driven,” he said, “and insurance alone is a huge chunk.”

And therein lies the fear, says former Berkshire Hills School Committee member and chair, Walter “Buddy” Atwood III. Atwood is currently a member of the Great Barrington Finance Committee. Atwood said that in the late 1980s the local school committees agreed to look at consolidation, but that Southern Berkshire’s administration “convinced the faculty that they would all lose their jobs,” he said. “Staffs would be reduced — not laid off, but not replaced.”

Great Barrington Finance Committee member Walter F. Atwood III.

Great Barrington Finance Committee member Walter F. Atwood III.

Atwood said there “is no need to close the elementary schools,” and that one high school would do the trick, just add an addition to one of the existing buildings with the money saved by cuts to “principals, vice principals and supers.”

Atwood thinks the Shared Services Project is a “stop-gap” measure by those who want to hang on to their “high paying” jobs, and “a bone they’re throwing to people.” He said it was meant to “shut up people like me.”

“We’ve tried and haven’t succeeded,” Bannon said. And Pignatelli says consolidation hasn’t happened yet because the concept is “too simple, and that’s the problem. These things take time. There’s ownership value in each town.”

Dillon says collaboration is the first step on any consolidation road.

“We have to carefully, thoughtfully build up relationships so you can have conversations about mascots, union contracts, time on buses,” he said. “That’s not happening before November 4 (renovation vote), and it may take five years…we need a proactive plan that looks at school districts differently than we’re looking at them now. We’ve got to do something.”

So when an administrator or business manager within one of the districts decides to leave or retire, will the school committees act?

“If the local elected leaders are willing to make a tough decision when it comes to the table,” Pignatelli said, “that’s what will pay dividends.”

In the meantime, Monument Mountain High is in need of significant repairs, which, Berkshire Hills says, will cost more to do piecemeal than to renovate the whole building and at the same time, and bring it up to modern educational standards. While consolidation may be in the district’s future, it is most definitely years away, and may meet with intractable resistance.

The 2005 Berkshire Hills intra-district regionalization created a campus with Monument Mountain High by closing the town schools and building a new elementary and middle school next to it.

“We pulled schools out of three towns into a central location so they could interact with each other,” said Dillon. “Pulling out the high school is not consistent logic.”

Stewart spoke of the high caliber of education in the Commonwealth and here in the Berkshires. The flexibility of sharing services will help the districts continue to deliver education at a high level, and perhaps even improve it, he said.

Yet educating children will always be laced with financial realities. “This is a clash of economic concerns with educational concerns,” Stewart said. “It’s going to be an ongoing theme. At what point does it get too expensive?”


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2 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Patrick Fennell says:

    Mr. Atwood is going in the right direction. Smitty is always thinking votes before what is best for the citizens, career pols always think of themselves first.

  2. Danny Klein says:

    Thank you for your excellent and timely article about the high school consolidation question.
    I was particularly struck by Mr. Pignatelli’s comment that “consolidation hasn’t happened yet because the concept is ‘too simple, and that’s the problem…There’s ownership value in each town.’”
    Yes, there is that pesky ‘mascots’ problem.

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