Berkshire County Education Task Force: Planning the future of public education
With a nod to Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changing.” The Berkshire County Education Task Force hopes to address changes in the educational landscape of our region by articulating a clear direction for our shared future that is intentional and focused on quality, sustainable pre-K-12 education. The Task Force is trying to proactively address these changes affecting Berkshire public school districts:
- A general decline in student enrollment that is expected to continue;
- Rising operational costs (i.e., benefits, special education, technology);
- Declining/flat revenues leading to additional financial burden to towns and municipalities; and
- Reductions in the diversity and range of educational programs available to students.
The Berkshire County Education Task Force was created to make actionable recommendations for positive, long-term improvements that will enable all Berkshire County school districts to provide and sustain quality education. A dedicated advisory group of 26 current and former school administrators and educators, school committee members, town administrators and prominent business leaders, the Task Force operates with support from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC).
“It is very exciting to see all these entities working towards a common goal. What is good for Williamstown, could be just as beneficial for Sheffield. It’s not about location, it’s about collaboration and process,” said Andrea Wadsworth, Lee School Committee chairperson.
The Task Force will provide well-researched options to meet the likely future pre-K-12 educational configurations of Berkshire County. This research will provide actionable information in place of assumptions and uninformed speculation. The data produced will equip stakeholders to clearly understand, consider, debate, support/reject, and potentially implement all or some of the recommendations proposed.
Absent the Task Force effort, many districts and municipalities in Berkshire County will face annual budget crises resulting in programmatic cuts that negatively affect the quality of education offered in their schools. Voters will suffer increasing anxiety over the rising costs of educating their children. The budget cuts we all face may provide short-term solutions but will not address the long-range challenges.
Now, more than ever, we need a cohesive message regarding the state of public education in Berkshire County. Education serves as a key variable in community wellbeing, from both workforce development and standard of life perspectives. Given demographic and economic shifts, we have no margin of error when it comes to branding our county as a positive place to live, raise a family, gain a first-class education, work, and locate a business. Individuals and families living in the Berkshires and those who work at or own businesses here need to be assured that our educational system is high quality and a regional priority If we commit to this goal, we will attract and retain residents, stimulate new businesses, and draw in tourists, which will improve the vitality of our region and protect our own self-interests.
Across the county, individual districts and towns, as well as other groups of districts, have been and are working to solve similar issues. Much work and effort has been done by many in South County over the past year and a half, and the Southern Berkshire Shared Services Project initiative will help us all in finding solutions. Many months of work by the Central Berkshire Regional School Committee and former Superintendent William Cameron also provided the foundation from which the Task Force evolved. InNorth County, Williamstown and Lanesborough have already combined with Mt Greylock to share services and trim costs. We can look to all of these efforts to guide our work.
The Task Force will recommend solutions that address the need to:
- Improve the access, diversity, breadth and quality of educational programs all children so they are fully prepared for college, career and life here in the Berkshires;
- Create economies of scale (financial savings) through new collaborations, technologies, partnerships, and regional agreements between municipalities and districts;
- Advance new investments in collaborative solutions, such as expanded pre-K programming and special education services, that improve educational opportunities for children county-wide;
- Maintain and honor the unique identity of each Berkshire community, ensuring citizens remain fully connected and engaged with their schools;
- Reflect age appropriate social and learning practices, such as transportation/travel time and the number of school/grade transitions.
With the support of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, a comprehensive first stage data set has been assembled that includes enrollment, financial, choice, and personnel markers. This information includes historical, current and projected data points.
The Berkshire County Education Task Force is now securing funding for project researchers to work on developing specific models building from this data set. These models will include what it would look like if school districts “did nothing” and additional “tiers” of advancing collaborative and shared services solutions, including cooperative purchasing, transportation, and shared special education programming; advancing formal partnerships between geographically proximate districts; and reorganizing the entire county into fewer school districts.
We welcome public engagement in this important effort and appreciate feedback along the way. All meetings are open to the public, with our meeting dates, agendas and minutes posted on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/BCETF.