Sheffield — In the wake of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District’s decision to leave the Berkshire County Education Task Force, it looks as if talks of a possible merger with Lee or Southern Berkshire will be underway shortly.
At its regular meeting Thursday night (Sept. 28), the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee voted to form a subcommittee whose title would be “The Future of Education in Southern Berkshire County.”
The Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee received a letter dated Sept. 19 from Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon and school committee Chairman Steve Bannon asking for a meeting with Southern Berkshire officials “to discuss merging our districts.”
“We should not say no to a meeting,” Southern Berkshire Chairman Carl Stewart of Alford said.
SBRSD school committee member Dennis Sears of Sheffield agreed, adding that he thought it made sense to consider meeting with Berkshire Hills and suggesting the district form a subcommittee to address the issue and represent the school committee in discussions with Berkshire Hills.
Like many other school officials in southern Berkshire County, Sears said he was opposed to the Berkshire County Education Task Force’s recommendation of a single countywide school district within 10 years.
“To be very blunt, I think it was a faulty recommendation,” Sears said.
The recommendation proved so unpopular at Berkshire Hills that school committee member Rich Dohoney denounced the task force as “a total wild goose chase” led by “some select group of random people.”
At Dohoney’s urging, about a month later, the school committee voted to exit the task force and pursue merger possibilities not only with Southern Berkshire, but the Lee Public Schools as well.
In an interview, Bannon told the Edge he and Dillon sent a similar letter to Lee Public Schools and its chair Andrea Wadsworth. He said he would prefer the school committee’s existing shared services subcommittee handle the discussions with other districts rather than form a special panel as Southern Berkshire did.
As a member of the task force, Bannon voted for the single countywide district proposal but later said he regretted that vote. Bannon has said the county’s school committees should have been more involved in the process, which he called “flawed.” Bannon said he could have supported without hesitation another concept the task force considered: three districts in the county–northern, central and southern.
“A better alternative than the task force’s was to have a South County district,” Bannon said. “I see no reason why that isn’t possible … the task force said it might have to start in pieces.”
To that end, Bannon said Berkshire Hills is not at cross purposes with itself in talking to both Lee and Southern Berkshire. And Berkshire Hills already has an arrangement with the Shaker Mountain School Union, which shares Dillon’s services as a superintendent with Berkshire Hills.
“I feel we should take a step back from one district to a three-district solution,” agreed Sears. “We can approach other towns to ask if they want to join us in this process.”
Another south county school system, the Lenox Public Schools, have never been a part of the discussion, even as only two years ago Berkshire Hills and Lee initiated talks on merging their districts.
“They want to talk about the possibility of merger with Lee but not Lenox,” Stewart said. “They’ve already said no. If Lenox’s [enrollment] was 100, they would probably still say no.”
The driving force behind regional school reform is enrollments, which are dropping significantly. Berkshire County school districts saw enrollment losses of 22 percent between 2000 and 2015. The UMass Donahue Institute, which the task force hired last year as a consultant, projected an additional decline of 11 percent between 2015 and 2025 with more enrollment losses projected over the following decade.
According to a Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District had 1,072 students in the year 2000. It has about 650 now, having lost 6 percent of its enrollment this year but, by 2025, is projected to have only 462 in all grades across the five towns in the district.
Bannon said he expects the topic will be discussed at the Thursday, Oct. 5, Berkshire Hills School Committee meeting. Bannon’s letter suggested Tuesday, Oct. 24, or Wednesday, Oct. 25, at 6 p.m. as possible times for an initial meeting of the two districts but no date for the meeting has been set.
At Southern Berkshire, six of 10 school committee members volunteered to be on the “The Future of Education in Southern Berkshire County” subcommittee: Bob Law, Sears, Bonnie Silvers, Marcella Bush, Françoise Lartigue and David Travis.