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Berkshire Hills seeks panel to explore possible merger with Southern Berkshire

Berkshire Hills School Committee member Rich Dohoney said he is approached by South County residents all the time and the most common question he hears is why Berkshire Hills isn't trying to merge with Southern Berkshire.

Great Barrington —The movement to consolidate school districts in southern Berkshire County took another step forward last week when the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee voted to send a letter to a neighboring district asking to establish a planning group to explore consolidation. 

At Thursday’s school committee meeting, Rich Dohoney of Great Barrington proposed that Berkshire Hills issue a written request to its member towns, along with the Southern Berkshire Regional School District and its members towns, to form a planning board “for the purpose of either forming, or consolidating into, a regional high school district to serve grades 9-12.” The motion requests a written response from Southern Berkshire by July 31, 2019. 

Click here to see the text of Dohoney’s entire motion and click here to see the meeting and discussion on a video recording made by Community Television of the Southern Berkshires. Fast forward to 1:24:45 to see the discussion and the unanimous vote to approve the motion.

Before Dohoney read his motion, school committee member Daniel Weston recused himself and left the table. Though a resident of Stockbridge, Weston teaches at New Marlborough Central School, which is part of the Sheffield-based Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

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

Dohoney explained that the process for forming and adding to a regional school district is provided for in Massachusetts General Law ch. 71, Section 14. 

“So I just thought if this issue is going to be continue to be discussed, it should be done in a formal process that’s laid out by the state legislature,” said Dohoney, an attorney who works for the state. “I think everybody, whether you’re for or against it … I think we’re all better served by going through the actual process.”

Dohoney said he is approached by South County residents all the time and the most common question he hears is why Berkshire Hills isn’t trying to merge with Southern Berkshire. 

“I get as many inquiries from people who are residents of SBRSD about why we aren’t merging as I get from my own constituents,” Dohoney said.

An aerial view of the Mount Everett campus of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

Superintendent Peter Dillon questioned whether the July 31 deadline was realistic, given the reduced schedules of school committees and administrators during the summer months. 

Dohoney said he’d be willing to extend it to Aug. 31 but school committee member Bill Fields of Great Barrington would have none of it.

“I just like July 31,” said Fields, a retired Berkshire Hills teacher. “We’ve been talking about this for so many years. What’s wrong with July 31? The sooner, the better for me.”

The rest of the school committee agreed with Fields and the motion passed with July 31 as the requested response date.

Almost two years ago, Dohoney made more news when he made a motion, which passed narrowly, for the school committee to withdraw from the Berkshire County Education Task Force. Two months earlier, the task force had recommended what one of its members called a “shocking proposal: “Berkshire County should consolidate its 19 school districts into one countywide district. At that time, Dohoney lashed out at the task force, calling it “a total wild goose chase” led by “some select group of random people.” 

Last October, Fields went a step farther than Dohoney, calling for a nonbinding referendum on the matter of merging or consolidating with Southern Berkshire. Fields’ recommendation was made at a meeting of the Southern Berkshire Educational Futures, a group formed in 2017 to explore the future of South County’s public schools, whether it be in the form of mergers of shared services.

Dennis Sears of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee, at left, with Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon.

Fields idea, 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. 

Berkshire Hills officials have repeatedly insisted that it did not appear that Southern Berkshire was interested but that eventually it would feel compelled to consider a merger because of projected enrollment declines. 

According to a Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, which is the first and smallest K-12 regional school district in the state, had 1,072 students in the year 2000. The district is expected to see its current enrollment of approximately 645 students plummet to 483 by 2028. 

Meanwhile, Berkshire Hills officials are engaged in the process of deciding what to do about the aging Monument Mountain Regional High School after a pair of $50-million-plus referendums to renovate it failed in 2013 and again a year later.

It is perhaps not surprising that Southern Berkshire taxpayers, who recently took on millions in debt to fix Mount Everett’s roof and boilers, feel justified in being apprehensive about merging with a school district that is itself pondering a much larger and more costly project. 

The Edge reached out to Jane Burke, the newly appointed chair of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee. She said the Berkshire Hills move came as a “surprise” to her but she declined to comment further until her committee has a chance to discuss it. 

Longtime Southern Berkshire School Committee members H. Dennis Sears and Bonnie Silvers did respond. Both emphasized that they were speaking for themselves and not for the committee. 

SBRSD School Committee member Bonnie Silvers.

Silvers noted that the aforementioned Southern Berkshire Education Futures meets today, June 11, and that perhaps that would be a good place to discuss the subject further. Click here to see the agenda for the meeting that will take place at 4 p.m. at the Lee Middle and High School library.

“I may not necessarily agree with Rich Dohoney’s timing of his motion, given tomorrow’s meeting, but I, speaking only as citizen of Sheffield and one school committee member say, ‘Go for it,'” Silvers told the Edge. “It’s your right.”

Silvers, a retired school administrator, said she has sat in on classes at Mount Everett, which she described as being in “fine physical condition,” and has seen firsthand students and teachers engaged in “real problem-solving activities and multi-disciplinary education” that prepares students for the future. 

Still, higher enrollment would be a plus. Silvers said that about four years ago Mount Everett Principal Glenn Devoti, who will be retiring shortly, told her the school would improve even more with three to five more students in each class — mostly because the excitement of a strong education comes from the robust exchange of ideas and knowledge in the classroom.

Silvers added that a merger would be a challenge — both politically and because of the debt Southern Berkshire took on in 2015 for the $7.7 million boiler and roof project, which was paid for with local dollars and $2.6 million from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The project took a great deal of time, planning and effort on the part of the school committee, staff, volunteers and the towns themselves, Silvers said, and it added to the financial burden of taxpayers.

“I hope that any discussions between BH and SBRSD will not be solely about a building but will be about our jobs inside the building,” Silvers said.

The entrance to the Southern Berkshire Regional school campus at Mount Everett Regional High School. Photo: David Scribner

Sears, who also sits on Southern Berkshire Educational Futures, told the Edge he has no objection to Dohoney’s idea of forming a panel to explore a merger, in part because “I think it would be a good idea to switch to this more structured approach.” Still, Sears is curious as to “why this is suddenly proposed after being proposed at least three times within the SBEF group.”

“I am also concerned about the idea of a concept that deals only with high school years 9-12,” Sears said. “I think most educators these days recognize that the middle schools need to be an in-synch pipeline for the high schools and I personally think such a look should include both middle and high school for curriculum purposes and highest success rates.”  

In a brief email message to the Edge on Monday, Dohoney responded to Sears’ concern: “A vast majority of the inquires I get from constituents about consolidation relate to the high school and the impact of declining enrollment on the quality of education is greater at the high school level.” 

Meanwhile, Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon said he would draft a letter reflecting Dohoney’s motion this week.


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