As enrollment plummets, panel charts ‘future’ of public education in southern Berkshires
Sheffield — What will education look like in Berkshire County 20 years and 30 years out? Unless the birth rate rises considerably, the chances are pretty good that the public school districts in the southern part of the county will either be sharing lots of services, or those districts’ boundaries will be redrawn entirely.
Figuring out how to get there is the job of a recently formed panel that includes school committee members from four South County school systems: the Berkshire Hills Regional School District; the Southern Berkshire Regional School District; and the municipal public school systems in the towns of Lee and Lenox.
Tentatively – and awkwardly – dubbed the Future of South Berkshire County Education Ad Hoc Subcommittee, the panel’s Southern Berkshire members had met several times, but the combined committee met for the second time before the holidays on Dec. 21 at the Mount Everett Regional School library to explore areas of agreement and to look ahead to the challenges and opportunities down the road. The panel was formed in September after Berkshire Hills made the decision to leave the Berkshire County Education Task Force.
“I like all the ideas I’ve heard and the collective sense of urgency around these issues,” said Peter Dillon, the Berkshire Hills superintendent.
Bonnie Silvers of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee said her recollection was that “after the first meeting, there was a strong feeling that we’re not here to merge our districts.”
But Steve Bannon, who chairs the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee, was quick to counter that view: “Nothing, from my point of view is off the table, including merging districts. If we take things off the table, it will serve no useful purpose,” he responded.
“I agree with Steve that consolidation is not off the table,” added Dennis Sears, who chairs the panel and is vice chair of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee.
The issues facing the four districts – and many others in Berkshire County, for that matter – were enumerated in a list Dillon had prepared in advance of the meeting. First on his agenda was declining enrollments and increasing costs.
It might sound counterintuitive that the smaller schools get the more expensive they are to run. But these small districts have certain fixed costs – such as building maintenance, utilities and post-employment benefits for retirees – that remain virtually the same no matter how many students attend. So per-pupil costs tend to rise sharply as enrollments decline.
Second is “access and equity.” The smaller schools get, the more limited the breadth of the their academic and extracurricular programs must be. Within the fiscal constraints typically imposed on school districts by taxpayers, it is almost impossible for very small school districts to offer the kinds of educational opportunities available at larger districts.
Dillon’s list also included such items as transportation, special needs, staff recruitment, testing regimes and other programs and services such as vocational that could be shared between districts.
“I think there is universal agreement that we need to do something about vocational,” observed Dillon. While some Berkshire County high schools have limited vocational programs, the only full-fledged technical high school is McCann Technical School up in far-flung North Adams.
The driving force behind regional school reform is enrollments, which are dropping at an alarming pace. Berkshire County school districts saw enrollment losses of 22 percent between 2000 and 2015. The UMass Donahue Institute has projected an additional decline of 11 percent between 2015 and 2025 with more enrollment losses projected over the following decade.
About two and half years ago, the Berkshire County Education Task Force was formed to tackle these issues and more, culminating in the “shocking recommendation” of a single countywide school district. On the advice of member Rich Dohoney, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee pulled out of the task force to pursue possible mergers with Lee and Southern Berkshire. And so the Future of South Berkshire County Education panel was born.
According to a Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District had 1,072 students in the year 2000. It has about 650 now, having lost 6 percent of its enrollment this year but, by 2025, is projected to have only 462 in all grades across the five towns in the district.
Furthermore, the regional schools reform movement got a boost this fall when state auditor Suzanne Bump, herself a Great Barrington resident, released a report addressing several issues that have vexed Berkshire County’s regional school districts for years, including the failures of the state to adequately fund transportation and create powerful incentives for consolidation.
Lee Superintendent Jake Eberwein, who is also the former superintendent in Pittsfield, suggested the four superintendents put their heads together and prepare a statement of the panel’s goals and a schedule of meetings.
Dillon agreed and added that perhaps 10 issues, which he characterized as “low-hanging fruit items that we could move forward with,” be identified initially, including, for example, a common calendar and shared professional development days or half days. Then the group could work on items that are of “medium difficulty, then stuff that’s really hard to do,” Dillon said.
Dillon also suggested hiring an outside facilitator. Eberwein said the Berkshire County Education Task Force is applying for a grant that could fund the facilitator.
“I don’t think it happens without it,” Eberwein said of the facilitator and the panel’s work. “As simple as some of the stuff appears, it can be complicated when it comes down to pulling it off, even professional development days … Having a facilitator would very useful in this group. Everyone walks away from these meetings and worries about other things.”
“We will soon get to roadblacks and a facilitator will help us,” added Bannon. Both Bob Vaughan and Molly Elliot of the Lenox School Committee agreed.
Bannon was enthusiastic about the panel’s work, noting that the “southern Berkshire schools have never spoken with one voice. If we were able to, it would make things better and we would be heard in Boston … Having us together instead of four or five of us asking separately would be great.”
Elliot noted that a wellness panel of the Lenox School Committee had talked about later starting times for the high school. Research has indicated that adolescents perform better academically when school starts later in the morning. Dillon agreed, adding that “we should have a deep conversation about what the pediatricians are saying about start times.”
Andrea Wadsworth of the Lee School Committee said she would like to see common professional development days on the next agenda. Silvers wanted to add the facilitator.
The panel agreed that its next meeting will be Thursday, Jan. 18, at 4:30 p.m. in the Berkshire Hills administrative office in Stockbridge.
“We may never be Weston or Wellesley, or Newton,” Dillon said. “But we have the opportunity to create a different path.”