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Berkshire Hills School Committee candidates agree: Bold financing reforms required

After Great Barrington voters shot down a Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation project two years in a row , a Regional Agreement Amendment Committee formed to get the three towns to the negotiating table to try to change the per-pupil funding arrangement.

Great Barrington — Three of four candidates running for the town’s three open school committee seats appear to know very well the economic struggles faced by the area’s rural regional schools and the specific challenges within the Berkshire Hills Regional School District and its three towns.

At a candidates forum Wednesday evening (October 26) at the Claire Teague Senior Center sponsored by Eileen Mooney’s NEWSletter and the Democratic Town Committee, candidates Michael Farmer and Anne Hutchinson, both write-ins, and incumbent Richard Dohoney hit mostly on education funding and options for school restructuring, both of which have been local hot button issues these last few years (Candidate Diane Singer, a physician whose children attended district schools, was unable to attend).

After Great Barrington voters shot down a Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation project two years in a row because the town pays more for the schools than Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, a Regional Agreement Amendment Committee (RAAC) formed to get the three towns to the negotiating table to try to change the per-pupil funding arrangement. It was a somewhat stormy process that resulted in an agreement, still to be taken to voters, that will lessen Great Barrington’s load for future capital projects.

Former school committee member Fred Clark asks the candidates a question. Standing next to candidate Richard Dohoney, seated at right, is moderator Michelle Gilligan. Photo: Heather Bellow.
Former school committee member Fred Clark asks the candidates a question. Standing next to candidate Richard Dohoney, seated at right, is moderator Michelle Gilligan. Photo: Heather Bellow.

The candidates talked about this local school funding issue, just one piece of a larger budget and school funding crisis.

Farmer, a social studies and economics teacher at neighboring Mt. Everett Regional High School, said a continuing dialogue such as began with the RAAC might further “reinvent how costs are shared.” He said some sort of “re-engineering” should take place since these schools “were built during a different era.” He suggested looking at how schools might be designed and operated if they were built today.

Dohoney, an attorney who is on the RAAC, said so many elements of school funding “are beyond our control.” One, he said is the “steady erosion of money from the state.”

“I haven’t seen an increase in the state income tax in years,” he added. “It stays flat, aid from state goes down, and real estate taxes go up.”

Yet we’re “stuck” with the property tax method of funding schools, he said. “I don’t think it’s a fair way to fund education.”

He further said that, 10 years ago, state money was flowing in well enough to keep budgets “right on the mark.” He said “new revenue” is the only way forward and that the district was already working hard on “efficiencies” like sharing services with other districts and “eventually consolidation.”

“We haven’t had a pleasant budget in forever,” Dohoney added. “We try to cut in ways that don’t affect students…we can’t just fix our problems by simply raising our real estate taxes.”

And therein lies the hottest button of all for Great Barrington residents, the very thing that sunk the Monument High renovation, something badly needed at the 50-year-old school.

Monument Mountain Regional High School is 50 years old and in desperate need of renovation or replacement. Photo: Heather Bellow.
Monument Mountain Regional High School is 50 years old and in desperate need of renovation or replacement. Photo: Heather Bellow.

“Costs are going up no matter what we do,” said Hutchinson, a recently retired pediatric nurse practitioner and former educator whose children went to school in the district. Hutchinson refers here to the alarming pace at which the district’s annual budget has shot up in recent years due to uncontrollable insurance costs. She further said solutions required a continued dialogue as well as the efficiencies. “There’s a huge amount of work to be done.”

Moderator Michelle Gilligan noted how hard it was for RAAC to get to its agreement about future capital costs funding.

“It was an extraordinary act of diplomacy by the town of Stockbridge,” Dohoney said, noting that the town acquiesced despite “the very large elephant sitting on the table” that is the eventual and unavoidable — and expensive  –Monument High project. It was Dohoney who brought the new formula for calculating future capital expenses to a vote at RAAC.

“It was incredible that [RAAC was] able to do that,” Hutchinson said, noting that, perhaps in future, more can be done to get the state involved to help make school funding more equitable.

And that was when resident Vivian Orlowski asked about that local bugaboo school choice, a state program that allows students to leave their district and “choice in” to another. The accepting district, however, doesn’t get the full reimbursement from the state. Complicating matters, the district was making healthy revenue off choice students without having to increase its expenses. After taxpayer outcry, the district shrunk its acceptance of choice students, resulting in another hit to its budget.

Dohoney noted that the choice program was designed to give a choice to students attending “failing schools,” something “we don’t have here.”

School choice was another button that pushed Great Barrington taxpayers over the edge when the Monument High renovation was up for a vote.

Farmer, who has a graduate degree in finance, said, from an economic standpoint, it was important to look at “who is using what resources…a user-pays principle,” and have “adjustment mechanisms” to balance out inequities.

Barrels catch leaks in a Monument High hallway last year. The school's needs are central in the district’s school funding issues. Photo: Heather Bellow
Barrels catch leaks in a Monument High hallway last year. Monument’s needs are central to the district’s school funding issues. Photo: Heather Bellow

All three candidates appeared to support a bold rethinking of the district and its evolution into the future, though Dohoney and Farmer were most specific.

Farmer said “education reform” should be on the table. He advocated reintegrating the schools into the community on a more physical level,” an approach that is good for both education and the budget. He used the private Waldorf High School as an example of success in teaching to smaller segments of students and providing learning outside of school. “They do really well,” he said, because they are “integrated with community resources.” He also wants to see more use of “emerging technology” and “globalized education.”

“We’re a little behind of current educational practices,” he added.

And Dohoney, who also sits on the district’s shared services/consolidation committee, noted that there are “a lot of entrenched interests” blocking fast and radical progress in these areas.

“We’re trying to reorganize what is really four high-quality school districts,” he said, noting that it is only a question of when, since changing demographics include a projected Berkshire County-wide population decline.

“But it’s hard to unwind something,” he said, adding that talking to neighboring districts about consolidation was like his “first year of college, running around asking girls out on dates and getting no responses.” He said education quality is dependent on the current or a higher population. But town and school pride — not to mention salaries — make merging districts painful. “No one’s ever asked us for a meeting — we keep asking them for meetings,” he said. “Everyone feels like they’re negotiating their job away. It really is a diplomatic mission.”

Hutchinson said she supported the continuance of these talks.

Asked about consolidation and student population decline by former Great Barrington Finance Committee Chair Sharon Gregory, Farmer noted that the Monument High renovation plan failed partly over the “capacity” issue. Former school committee member Fred Clark wanted to know how a new renovation plan could be brought to tax-weary voters.

“The idea of adding the same capacity didn’t resonate [with voters],” Farmer said, adding that a “serious look” should be had at what kind of new high school building would “meet the needs of the broadest population — not duplication but enhancement.”

Whatever is done to remodel or replace Monument High, Dohoney said Great Barrington would pay about 20 percent less for the construction if towns vote for the new capital funding formula. He said the district was currently on a “reimagining” mission for the way education is delivered, and that this will guide future building designs. The district’s options, he said, were hamstrung by the state school building authority’s tight design prescriptions that had to be adhered to for state funding.

Hutchinson, noting all these issues, wondered, “do we go the state’s way or vote on something radically different?”

The forum ended on a hopeful note, as Farmer explained that, for all these funding tangles and “moving parts,” education is good in the Berkshires because the state allows some independence among the towns. “If Massachusetts were a country, it would be the sixth most educated country in the world,” he said. “There’s something right about the Massachusetts model.”

The forums can be viewed on CTSB-TV.

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