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Berkshire Hills official wants referendum on possible merger with SBRSD

The recommendation came amid mounting frustration with the slow pace of progress in gaining public approval for taking some tangible action.

Stockbridge — A Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee member has called for a nonbinding referendum on the concept of consolidating his district with the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

Bill Fields of Great Barrington floated the idea at a meeting last week of the Southern Berkshire Educational Futures, a group formed last year to explore the future of South County’s public schools, whether it be in the form of mergers of shared services.

Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee member Bill Fields, center, makes a point as Superintendent Peter Dillon, at left, and fellow school committee member Anne Hutchinson listen. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“A recommendation could come from this group for towns in Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills to have a public referendum that would say, ‘Are you in favor in consolidating either on a elementary school, regional high school, or [as] a complete region?'” Fields said.

Fields’ recommendation, supported by his friend and former Monument Mountain Regional High School athletic director Paul Gibbons, came as both men had become frustrated with the slow pace of progress in gaining public approval for taking some tangible action.

“You need to move and, I’m sorry, you need to have some courage to go into the community and find out what they want and what they will support,” said Gibbons, his voice rising in frustration.

See video below of Bill Fields and Paul Gibbons opining on holding a referendum on school consolidation:

Both Fields and Gibbons, who worked together for years at Monument, sit on Monument Next Steps, another panel formed last year to decide what to do about the aging high school. This will be the third try since 2013 to get voter approval to rebuild the 1960s-era school. Within the span of one year, a pair of $50 million-plus proposals failed, leaving advocates of the school scratching their heads and wondering what to do next.

One topic of concern raised by Next Steps was the size of any new high school proposed in Berkshire Hills. The size of a new school would be greatly affected by a potential merger with Southern Berkshire or, for that matter, Lee and Lenox, the two other school districts represented on the futures panel.

Also weighing heavily on everyone’s minds was recent enrollment projections released by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, 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. Over the next 10 years, Southern Berkshire is expected to decline from 645 to 483, a 25 percent loss of its student enrollment.

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

“It’s staring you in the face,” Fields told the futures panel. “Declining enrollment and a tax base that is changing and, if the expenses go up and the enrollment goes down, Great Barrington and south Berkshire towns will be only for New York City people who can afford second homes up here and everybody else is going to be gone.”

Fields said it’s widely assumed, however, that taxpayers in Southern Berkshire don’t want to get involved with Berkshire Hills for fear of having to finance a new high school. But Fields said he’s convinced that the “governance problem” can be resolved.

One benefit is the recommendation of the district’s Regional Agreement Amendment Committee, which, last year, got voters to approve a change to the school district’s 50-year-old agreement so that the three member towns would each pay the same property tax rate to fund the capital portion of the district’s budget rather than be assessed mostly on the number of students they enroll in the district.

The change is presumed to make it easier to get a new high school passed in Great Barrington, where taxpayers twice refused to approve a Proposition 2½ override needed to fund the projects.

“I could almost assure you that the building and whatever needs to be done with Monument Mountain Regional High School will not cost other towns,” Fields said. “It’s going to be a Berkshire Hills responsibility—and it should be.”

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon asked if it would responsible to put forward a referendum—even a nonbinding one—without any details to offer. Dillon suggested perhaps a survey of residents of the districts instead.

Lenox School Committee member Bob Vaughan recounts the history of failed overtures for mergers and consolidation over the years in South County. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“You do a survey and it’s hit or miss,” said Bob Vaughan, a retired school principal and member of the Lenox School Committee. “If you do a referendum, everyone has a chance to come out and vote.”

As part of any deal on a merger, Fields added that he was open to keeping some of the community schools, such as New Marlborough, open, though not a school as small as South Egremont, whose program has roughly a dozen students. The controversial school itself remains temporarily unoccupied, however, because of issues with lead.

Berkshire Hills School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon said he thought holding a referendum without any details would be “setting us up for failure to start with” and he thought the futures group was “moving in the right direction.”

“It’s not going to happen in the next six months,” Bannon said. “Consolidation and regionalization takes more than one person and one group to want to do it, and it’s a slow process.”

The futures panel discussed hiring a facilitator for at least 10 meetings over the next year. Click here to see a request for proposals drafted by Dillon. The facilitator will be paid $6,000 to attend 10 meetings, prepare for them and perform follow-up afterward. The money to fund the consulting facilitator would most likely come from the towns represented on the futures panel, Dillon said.

Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon, at left, and Dennis Sears of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The facilitator’s duties would also include planning and organization, obtaining data and analysing it, and documenting the group’s efforts. Dillon said a few people have been mentioned as possibilities to fill the slot: Jennifer Dowley, the former director of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation; and Nat Karns, the retired director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

Retired school superintendent Bill Cameron’s name was also mentioned, but he might have a conflict of interest since he now chairs the Berkshire County Education Task Force, which, last year,recommended the creation of a single countywide school district. Berkshire Hills subsequently withdrew from the task force.

In addition, Dillon will search for candidates through the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools. Jake Eberwein, the Lee superintendent, suggested reaching out for candidates to area colleges such as Berkshire Community College, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Bard College at Simon’s Rock and Westfield State University. Eberwein also floated the idea of asking the Berkshire County Education Task Force for some funding for the facilitator.

The next meeting of the Southern Berkshire Educational Futures panel will be Wednesday, Nov. 14, at 4:30 p.m. at Lenox Town Hall. By that time, members hope to have plenty of resumes to review for the facilitator’s position.

See video below of the discussion at the Oct. 10 meeting of the Southern Berkshire Educational Futures panel:

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