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A Berkshire megadistrict? Questions raised about education task force proposal

"The real question is whether thoughtful creative educators are thinking creatively about the consolidation and how to make the most of this [potential] change." -- Susan Engel, director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College, and a former member ot the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee

Great Barrington — It didn’t take long for dissension to surface after the Berkshire County Education Task Force made a sweeping recommendation last month that would radically change the way public education is governed and administered in the county.

Last week, a prominent member of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee blasted the task force for recommending the creation of one countywide school district within 10 years, declaring it to be “a total wild goose chase” led by “some select group of random people.” And he cast doubt on both the practicality and the educational soundness of the proposal.

Richard Dohoney of Great Barrington has also chaired the Berkshire Hills Finance Subcommittee for years and is an attorney who practices in Pittsfield. Click here to view his remarks as recorded by Community Television for the Southern Berkshires.

“The proposal has no chance of happening, even if the best-intentioned people were running it and that’s not the case,” Dohoney told the committee on July 27. Only half the committee’s 10 members were present on this warm summer night.

Berkshire County Education Task Force (BCETF) meeting in July.
Berkshire County Education Task Force (BCETF) meeting in July.

Dohoney called for a vote of the BHRSD School Committee at its next meeting on Sept. 14 on whether to leave the panel. Representing Berkshire Hills on the task force is BHRSD School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon, who voted for the recommendation, albeit reluctantly, he said later.

Dohoney was also annoyed that the task force, which actually has no legal authority, did not visit the county’s school committees to brief them before making the recommendation (the proposal could only become a reality if it’s approved by all the school districts involved and by the state Legislature).

He insisted Berkshire Hills has been a leader in the effort to share services with other districts — Berkshire Hills is sharing Superintendent Peter Dillon with the Shaker Mountain School Union — and has even engaged in talks about a possible merger with the Lee Public Schools and with the Southern Berkshire Regional School District. In addition, Dohoney pointed to the district’s successful efforts to reform its capital funding process to be more amenable to tax-weary Great Barrington residents.

Also targeted by Dohoney was the task force’s public relations effort, which he characterized as calling on the “Pittsfield corporate media machine to start selling this on people.” It was a reference to an email sent out by the task force looking for marketing and public relations help from business leaders and their organizations.

After Dohoney’s 10-minute monologue, he added, “That is all I have to say.” Only one school committee member responded, though Superintendent Peter Dillon quipped, “Tell us what you really think, Rich.”

The task force had voted 24-1 to endorse the concept of one Berkshire County school district. Bannon, of Great Barrington, voted for the proposal. The lone dissenter was Michael Wise, also of Great Barrington, the chairman of the Democratic Town Committee and the former chair of the town Finance Committee.

Bannon said he was in favor of having three school districts, which was one of the options the task force considered. But Bannon preferred three districts under one school union, or what task force chairman John Hockridge has called “an umbrella over the current structure” that retains more local control for towns than a formal regional school district.

Barrington Steve Bannon
Steve Bannon

But that proposal was not on the table, so Bannon voted for his next preferred option — the single unified countywide school district. Bannon emphasized that the vote was a reflection of his own preference and that his action should not be interpreted as speaking on behalf of the Berkshire Hills School Committee but that he did support the idea of the task force reporting back to the school committees in the county first — an idea that was shot down by the task force.

“I was more than uncomfortable with my vote afterwards because my gut was telling even there were a couple of problems with it,” Bannon said. “How would this ever get past the voters unless we just got the state to impose it?”

Bannon cited his own district’s recent history of having twice rejected badly needed renovations of the aging Monument Mountain Regional High School (in 2013 and 2014). Both proposals were rejected by Great Barrington but passed in the other two district towns.

“We couldn’t get those things through three towns,” Bannon continued, referring to Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. “I can’t imagine if every town had to vote on this.”

Earlier, Dohoney questioned whether there was any educational value to the task force’s recommendation. “There’s no educational proposals that came out of this,” he insisted, further suggesting the primary motivation was to lower taxes.

But Hockridge, a member of the North Adams School Committee who chairs the task force, told The Edge in an interview that educational advantages and improved outcomes were always his panel’s top goals.

John Hockridge, Chairperson, of the Berkshire Education Task Force
John Hockridge, Chairperson, of the Berkshire Education Task Force

“Educational outcomes have always been our primary focus,” Hockridge said. “That’s the goal.”

Indeed, the first goal stated in the task force’s 56-page Phase 2 recommendation is to “Enhance access, diversity, breadth and quality of educational programs for children countywide so they are fully prepared for college, career and a life here in the Berkshires.”

Hockridge pointed to the stronger programs a unified district could offer, including the sharing of specialty academic courses and teachers between schools, distance learning and additional extracurricular and athletic offerings. As an example, Hockridge said some schools might offer modern languages or advanced science courses — or perhaps cutting-edge technologies — that others cannot offer. Those sorts of improvements, he says, would enhance educational opportunities in an era of the steadily declining resources and enrollments we are seeing in existing individual districts in the county.

However, Hockridge added that those outcomes cannot be achieved without sustainability. Currently, the county’s 19 school districts serve about 15,000 students (soon to be 14,000), fewer than the entire eastern Massachusetts city of Brockton, for example.

Enrollments are dropping significantly. Berkshire County school districts saw enrollment losses of 22 percent between 2000 and 2015. The UMass Donahue Institute, which the task force hired last year as a consultant, projected an additional decline of 11 percent between 2015 and 2025, with more enrollment losses projected over the following decade.

Furthermore, “declining or flat revenues pose challenges to the quality of education in Berkshire County, and therefore threaten economic development of the region,” the report says.

As for Dohoney’s characterization of the task force enlisting the services of the “Pittsfield corporate media machine,” Hockridge insisted that Dohoney “misinterpreted” an email he had sent out to the task force.

“We needed help because it’s a complicated message to get out,” Hockridge explained. “We do not have that kind of expertise on our task force.”

Andrea Wadsworth
Andrea Wadsworth

In an interview, task force member Andrea Wadsworth also defended the panel’s decision not visit the county’s school committees in advance of the task force’s vote on the Phase 2 recommendation and noted that the task force did plenty of outreach earlier in the process.

“Between Phase 1 and 2, we went to 49 school committees and select boards,” Wadsworth said. Besides, she added, Phase 3 is when the details will be worked out, so if the task force had visited school committees, there would be many unanswered questions. The task force is planning to conduct more outreach in September or October.

Wadsworth, who also chairs the Lee School Committee, echoed Hockridge’s sentiments about the improved educational offerings and opportunities a unified countywide district would bring to its students.

She added that there has been no negative reaction among her constituents or the Lee School Committee, some of whose members attended numerous task force meetings as observers, to the Phase 2 roll-out. Carl Stewart, who chairs the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee, told The Edge Friday he has heard no feedback — negative or otherwise — from his committee on the Phase 2 report.

“I found his [Dohoney’s] passion admirable, but unfair to the task force with broad stroke generalizations,” Wadsworth said. “His ideas are great. If he really wants to be collaborative and impactful, maybe he should come to a meeting.” Wadsworth knows Dohoney from the time she worked in the Berkshire Hills central office as the district’s accountant.

Lee Middle and High School that could consolidate some of its programming with Berkshire Hills.
Lee Middle and High School that could consolidate some of its programming with Berkshire Hills.

The town of Lee and its public schools have been on the forefront of sharing services in Berkshire County. Recently, Lee and Lenox agreed to share the services of Lenox Town Manager Chris Ketchen, who became chief administrative officer of both towns. Wadsworth said the school district is trying to work out a similar arrangement with the impending retirement of interim Lee Schools Superintendent Al Skrocki.

Wadsworth also touted the economies of scale a single countywide school district: “We would have buying power for health insurance that will be unmatched in the state.” But a central question remains unanswered — one that is critical to the discussion: Do larger school districts improve educational outcomes?

According to a study published in the Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, between 1930 and 1970, “average school size in the United States increased from 87 to 440 and average district size increased from 170 to 2,300 students. During that time, more than 120,000 schools and 100,000 districts were eliminated via consolidation.”

A Harvard and University of Chicago study in 2005 found that while larger districts “were associated with modestly higher returns to education and increased educational attainment in most specifications, any gains from the consolidation of districts were far outweighed by the harmful effects of larger schools.” Those harmful effects include lower wages later in life. And the study also found that African Americans and lower-income students were disproportionately harmed by larger schools.

Other studies, including this one from Georgia State University, note that school district consolidation does indeed involve “a variety of complex political and fiscal factors” aside from cost savings, such as “income and tax base differences across districts, racial factors, and the size of the school districts with which operations will be merged.”

Susan Engel, director of the Williams College Program in Teaching.
Susan Engel, director of the Williams College Program in Teaching.

Susan Engel, who teaches psychology and is director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College, tells The Edge that since the details of how the task force’s recommendation would implemented are not yet known, it’s difficult to gauge how effective it would be.

“Are they simply sharing administrative staff and bussing students so that they can reduce the number of campuses?” Engel asked. “Or are they using this as an opportunity to think in a fresh way about what goes on at each campus?”

Engel, who also served as director of teaching and learning at Berkshire Hills while on sabbatical from Williams, is a former member of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee. As she sees it, geography is only one factor when assessing the value of a countywide district.

“What if each school building, within a certain proximity, offers a somewhat different cluster of educational experiences, and kids get to make use of more than one campus during their week?” Engel asked.

“I don’t think the most important issue is how it affects student outcomes, or rather I would say that depends on what outcomes one cares about,” Engel continued. “The real question is whether thoughtful creative educators are thinking creatively about the consolidation and how to make the most of this [potential] change.”

There is currently a movement in Delaware to consolidate that state’s school districts into three countywide districts. The state has a population of less than a million people, but has 19 districts (the same number as Berkshire County) to serve a student population of only 156,000.

A feasibility study done by the Delaware Department of Education in 2002 on countywide consolidation in two of the state’s three counties estimated that cost savings would be considerably less than expected because, even though there would only be one superintendent, 18 regional assistant superintendents and directors would need to be hired.

An aerial view of the campus of Berkshire Hills Regional School District schools.
An aerial view of the campus of Berkshire Hills Regional School District schools.

In addition, labor unions would likely insist that salaries in lower-paying districts be “leveled-up” to match those in the higher paying districts, further offsetting the savings achieved through transportation, purchasing, health insurance and buying-power efficiencies.

“While one could argue that the countywide district salary scales could be established at rates lower than that of the highest paid existing district, it is believed that such an implementation strategy would ultimately prove unsuccessful,” the study said.

In neighboring Maryland, there are 24 school districts and, with the exception of the city of Baltimore, all are countywide and administered by the counties.

Marylanders never actually chose to consolidate because the taxing structure in state law stipulates that counties are the taxing authorities for public education. That has been the case for more than 100 years, not long after the establishment of public education in the state, said Bill Reinhard, director of communications for the Maryland State Department of Education.

Asked whether Marylanders like the structure, Reinhard replied, “Our schools benefit from great public and political support — nobody runs against education funding and wins in virtually any part of this state. But I don’t think state residents compare it to other state structures in this regard.”

Reinhard said it is difficult to know whether the system saves money because Maryland’s education system has always been countywide, but he did say the counties have considerable influence and communication with officials at the State House in Annapolis — something that might be harder to achieve in a small regional district.

“As someone who spent years in other states, I can certainly see the advantages of this system,” Reinhard explained. “For example, our state superintendent meets monthly, face-to-face with all local superintendents. That communication provides important policy information in a way that can’t be replicated anywhere else.”

The Berkshire County Education Task Force will hold its next meeting on Saturday, Aug. 12 at 9 a.m. at Nessacus Regional Middle School in Dalton.


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