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As panel mulls future of Monument Mountain Regional High School, questions about district mergers remain

The Massachusetts School Building Authority would increase aid on a building project for two districts that merge. "We would get a huge incentive from MSBA for doing an expanded region," Superintendent Peter Dillon explained.

Great Barrington —The committee charged with coming up with a new plan to fix the ailing Monument Mountain Regional High School is plowing ahead.

And with the recent release of countywide enrollment figures casting doubt on the viability of some school districts, members of the panel are grappling with what a new school would look like – if, indeed, taxpayers were to approve it. 

Monument Next Steps, which was formed last year by the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee, has set a schedule of 11 meetings in the coming months with a goal of getting the go-ahead for financial backing from the state and presenting a plan to the school committee and the public in May.

As Superintendent Peter Dillon pointed out at Tuesday’s Next Steps meeting in the high school student center, that aggressive timetable may or may not pan out. For one thing, whether the project will be approved for funding by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) is anyone’s guess.

See video below of the Oct. 2, 2018, meeting of Monument Next Steps:

 

This will be the third try since 2013 to get state aid for the aging high school. Within the span of one year, a pair of $50 million-plus proposals failed when Great Barrington, by far the largest of the three towns in the district, failed to approve an override to Proposition 2½ , a state statute that limits tax levy increases. In both cases, the state would have paid for almost 41 percent of the cost, not counting incentives.

“We submitted a statement of interest [to the MSBA] and they were interested enough that they came in very late June and ran through the high school with Steve [Soules], and Steve Bannon and I and a couple other people,” Dillon explained, referring to School Committee Chairman Bannon and Soules, the district’s operations director. 

Dillon said in the first wave early in 2018, the MSBA received approximately 100 statements of interest and the authority visited some 50 schools. To its credit, Berkshire Hills made the first cut and was among those visited.  

“And now they’re putting them in priority order based on some complex rubric that they have: physical need; likelihood of it moving forward; are voters in that community going to support it?” Dillon explained. 

As anyone who has toured Monument will tell you, the school would rank high on the needs list. And the school committee and its subcommittees have demonstrated the ability to hire the right people and put together a credible plan for renovation or reconstruction of the facility.

“The question is they supported us twice and it failed in Great Barrington, and do they want to put their resources to a vote that could potentially fail again?” Dillon asked, “So that’s a question mark.”

Next Step members discuss the fate of Monument. From left, Superintendent Peter Dillon, Dan Bailly, Michelle Loubert, Bill Fields, Paul Gibbons and Roger Kavanagh.

 

Also looming was the elephant in the room: the future of Berkshire County’s 19 school districts in the face of population declines and low birth rates. Those numbers were put into stark relief by the release earlier this year of enrollment projections by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission out to the year 2028.

Click here to view those projections, which predict that the county will lose almost 2,500 students, or 16 percent of its school-age population by 2028. Berkshire Hills is predicted to lose 180 students, or about 15 percent of its school-age population, by 2028. 

Of particular concern was the situation at the Southern Berkshire Regional School District in Sheffield, where district-wide enrollments are expected to decline from the current 645 to 483 over the next 10 years. While those numbers are bad news for Southern Berkshire, they are encouraging for other districts that are looking for partners in consolidation. 

“The good news is Southern Berkshire,” said Next Steps chairman and retired Monument history teacher Bill Fields, who himself attended Mount Everett Regional School. “They’re losing 25 percent. It just seems to me like the handwriting’s on the wall.”

Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee member Bill Fields, in foreground. Behind him, School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon.

Indeed, Berkshire Hills had held talks with other school districts in Berkshire County about the possibility of sharing services or actually merging, but few substantive proposals have emerged.  

Berkshire Hills has also been involved with the Future of South Berkshire County Education Ad Hoc Subcommittee, which has met several times since last year. That panel, which typically includes representatives from Berkshire Hills, Southern Berkshire, Lee and Lenox, meets next on Oct. 10. Click here to see the agenda and click here to see agendas of past meetings.  

Indeed, if a new high school is formally proposed at Berkshire Hills, officials will have to make decisions on a range of issues, including whether to renovate the existing space (and perhaps add to it), build a new school and demolish the old one. 

Furthermore, there is the question of how many students it should be built for. Dillon has only been superintendent for nine years but he has spoken with oldtimers who tell him at one time Monument, which opened in 1969, had more than 800 students.

Former Monument Principal Marianne Young has said that as recently as 1999 there were 700 students at the high school. The current enrollment is approximately 540, including out-of-district students tuitioning in from other districts that don’t have a high school, and others availing themselves of public school choice, which was enacted in Massachusetts in 1993.  

“If I were to put 800 kids in this building, as it stands today, I would be fired by the state, right?” Dillon quipped. 

Fields, who was on the faculty at Monument for 40 years before retiring in 2009, said the growth of the special education program alone has been phenomenal. The department now takes up four rooms.

Next Steps and school committee member Jason St. Peter of Stockbridge argued that the new school should be built to accommodate all the school-age children who live in the district, which includes the towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. 

“That’s our legal responsibility,” he said. 

But there was a strong sense that the new school should also be built to accommodate a potential district that would merge with Berkshire Hills. The Farmington River Regional School District in Otis and the Richmond School District were mentioned. Neither district has a high school and, after elementary school, they send most of their students to Monument through negotiated tuition agreements. 

Mt. Everett Regional High School, on the Sheffield campus of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

But again, the conversation turned to Southern Berkshire, where projections indicate that district-wide enrollments will drop from the current 645 to 483, a loss of 25 percent.

But Fields was skeptical about whether Southern Berkshire would enter into serious discussions about a merger. When the Southern Berkshire School Committee tried to close the one-room South Egremont School, Egremonters were so outraged that the town sued the school committee, which resulted in a settlement that theoretically allowed the town to keep it open, though after a thorough renovation paid for by the town, it remains closed because of issues with lead. 

“It’s nice to have one-room schoolhouses, but it’s obvious that Southern Berkshire is facing some real problems and if I’m a financial person there, I’ve got to be wondering,” said Fields, who also served on the Great Barrington Finance Committee for 22 years. 

The Egremont Village School, a component of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, undergoing repair to its foundation. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Dillon said at a certain point Southern Berkshire — and perhaps other school districts in the county — will encounter a tipping point when they see graduating classes of 20 or 30. If indeed, Southern Berkshire has fewer than 500 students by 2028, then there will only be approximately 125 students in grades 9-12. 

“At some point, they’re going to hit the wall and realize that they are not able to provide a wonderful — not mention adequate — education and I think that’s when they’ll start having conversations with us,” Dillon said. 

“That’s one of the things I’m really bothered by,” said Next Steps member Paul Gibbons, the retired Monument athletic director.  

“This whole idea of expanding the region has been discussed for, I don’t know how long now, and either it’s time to say yes, it’s going to happen or no it isn’t. And if that’s the case, we go on our own way and we’re done with it and it doesn’t have to be brought up again.”

Dillon said there is no need to rush the process because “tradition and legacy are slow to change.” 

“The low hanging fruit’s been picked,” Fields countered, referring to shared services among the districts. “It’s time to put up or shut up.” 

Click here to read a recent Edge story on a presentation by consultant Jon Winikur to Next Steps on the MSBA process. One interesting item that came out of that presentation is that the MSBA would increase aid on a building project for two districts that merge.

“We would get a huge incentive from MSBA for doing an expanded region,” Dillon explained. “The dollar value of it on a $60-to-$70 million project is $3.5 to $4 million. So if we have a new dance partner we get that money, so it’s a big deal.”

Dillon said the MSBA board meets in December and February and will announce the schools that are still in the running. If Berkshire Hills does not make the cut then it’s likely the district will update its statement of interest and submit it again.  

He distributed a schedule of future Next Steps meetings and rough outlines for each session. Also distributed was a survey given to Next Steps members concerning the last proposal for reconstructing Monument that failed in 2014. The plan is to “open it up to more people and use that data we have to make it multiple choice with some room for open-ended responses so we can analyze it faster,” Dillon said. 

Click here for the schedule and click here for the survey results. The next meeting of the panel is slated for Oct. 30 at 6 p.m. in the high school student center.

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