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

At BHRSD-SBRSD summit, talk of potential merger and doing what’s best for students

School committee members noted that the driving force behind the merger should be greater opportunity for students and a desire "to keep education strong" in the two districts amid declining enrollments.

Sheffield — It’s difficult to know exactly where the movement to merge two South County school districts will take us. But one thing is certain: It has gotten off to a positive start.

On Thursday, Sept. 19, the school committees of both the Berkshire Hills and the Southern Berkshire regional school districts met in the conference room of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.

This meeting followed another one earlier this month of municipal officials from the eight towns that would be affected by the potential merger. Click here to see video of that meeting in Sheffield Town Hall.

Southern Berkshire School Committee Chair Jane Burke, left, listens as her counterpart at Berkshire Hills, Steve Bannon, dispels a myth about funding a new high school. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Southern Berkshire Chair Jane Burke described the historic summit (click here to listen to an audio recording of it) as an “ice-breaker” and asked what a consolidated district would look like. At this stage no one really knew.

But the move toward a merger gathered steam when Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee member Rich Dohoney proposed in June that his district send a letter to SBRSD “for the purpose of either forming, or consolidating into, a regional high school district to serve grades 9-12.”

That created friction with members of the Southern Berkshire school committee, some of whom complained of being blindsided and lamented that they had first learned of Dohoney’s missive from the news media.

Fences were subsequently mended when Burke and Sheffield Board of Selectmen Chair Rene Wood traveled to Great Barrington last month to meet with Berkshire Hills officials in what Berkshire Hills committee Chair Steve Bannon hailed as an “historic night.”

Southern Berkshire school committee members and selectmen from its five member towns subsequently made it known that they are not interested in forming a new regional school district only for the high school grades. Berkshire Hills has since agreed.

“It seemed most critical in the high school,” Dohoney said of the declining enrollments in both districts. “Lack of population, from my point of view, has the greatest impact at the high school level … That was not intended to be any kind of a limitation. It was more of a starting point.”

The Eight Town Consolidation Committee met Sept. 13 in Sheffield Town Hall. Sheffield selectboard member Nadine Hawver, dressed in blue, was elected chair. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Dohoney had suggested the two districts form a planning committee to explore the potential merger, using the process for forming and adding to a regional school district provided for in Massachusetts General Law Ch. 71, Section 14.

But there did not seem to be a consensus for pursuing the statutory method that appoints a planning group. Rather, the school committees met jointly and the towns met last week. The town panel, known as the Eight Town Consolidation Committee, will evidently take the lead.

That committee will meet for a second time on Wednesday, said Nadine Hawver, the selectboard member from Sheffield who chairs the Eight Town Consolidation Committee. It is expected that several school committee members from both districts will attend as well. Where they go from there is anyone’s guess.

But one point of discussion among the school committees last week was both reassuring for Southern Berkshire and a source of comic relief. Cynics have long suspected that the real reason Berkshire Hills was interested in a merger was that it might bring five more towns into Berkshire Hills as a source of more revenue to pay for a new Monument Mountain Regional High School.

But Bannon threw cold water on that theory.

“We are under no circumstances suggesting that the sharing of the cost needs to increase,” Bannon said. “We have three towns that need to share the burden on this. We’re not asking you to join so that you can help pay for it.”

Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee member David Travis called the question of funding a new Monument Mountain Regional High School ‘the elephant in the room.’ Photo: Terry Cowgill

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. Stockbridge and West Stockbridge are the other two towns in the Berkshire Hills district.

“That’s the elephant in the room, right?” said SBRSD school committee member David Travis.

“Not anymore,” Bannon shot back, eliciting laughs.

Bannon did acknowledge that adding new towns to a district would increase the reimbursement rate from the Massachusetts School Building Authority for a new high school.

Earlier this year, Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon, who is also the part-time superintendent for the Shaker Mountain School Union, which includes Hancock and Richmond, said there was a chance that the town of Richmond was interested in joining Berkshire Hills for grades 9–12. Such a move would add up to 6 percentage points to the level of reimbursement or, Dillon estimated, $4 million to $5 million in additional state aid for a new high school.

Travis added that “the existential threat pertaining to enrollment seems to force our hand.” Dohoney produced a brief spreadsheet showing grades 9-12 enrollment figures in the two districts as of Oct. 1, 2018, the last year for which such figures officially became available. Also included was the total number of public school choice students and those between the two districts. Click here to view it.

“Its explains why there is potential for synergy there,” Dohoney said.

Eight Town Consolidation Committee member Lucy Prashker makes a point at the Sept. 13 meeting in Sheffield. At right is New Marlborough selectboard member Tara White. At left is Egremont Selectman George McGurn. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Bannon, Burke and Hawver noted that the driving force behind the merger should be greater opportunity for students and a desire “to keep education strong” in the two districts amid declining enrollments. In small high schools, per-pupil costs are higher and they struggle to provide comprehensive academic, athletic and extracurricular offerings.

Bannon added that those looking for big savings will be disappointed, at least initially. Bannon and Burke also emphasized that the ongoing talks are merely about exploring a possible merger. All agreed that both districts had much in common. Hawver added the merger “could make history.”

According to a 2008 state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education research brief, since the 1990s only 13 new K–12 districts have been formed, mostly the result of consolidation of regional secondary districts and their members into one K–12 regional district. Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire, both of which are K-12 districts, have entered into unsuccessful talks about possible mergers before, most recently in the early 1990s.

Just to the east of South County, the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District was formed in 2011 after Granville joined the other two towns in a new school district. The move gave the district six additional percentage points of reimbursement for a new regional high school from the MSBA for an effective rate of more than 60 percent.

The Eight Town Consolidation Committee will meet at the Berkshire Hills district offices in Stockbridge on Wednesday, Sept. 25, at 4:30 p.m.