Great Barrington — The Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee has officially divorced itself from a controversial countywide education task force while vowing to pursue a merger with one or more districts in southern Berkshire County.
Richard Dohoney, who represents Great Barrington on the school committee, had announced in July that he intended to introduce a motion to withdraw from the Berkshire County Education Task Force, an advisory panel that, earlier this summer, 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.”
Dohoney’s reasoning, he said after introducing the motion last night, is that he is not opposed the task force itself but “is against our participation at this time.” Insisting that the task force would “distract us,” Dohoney said the school committee should be focusing on a realistic goal such as sharing services or merging with another nearby school district.
Indeed, he said, all indications are that Berkshire Hills taxpayers don’t support the concept of a single countywide school district, which Dohoney characterized as “very radical proposal without our community’s support.”
“It throws everything out the window,” Dohoney said of the task force’s sweeping proposal. “Their conclusions are not in the best interests of the people we were elected to serve.”
Committee member Bill Fields, also from Great Barrington, agreed with Dohoney. He called the task force’s recommendation an “unbelievably unrealistic, aspirational goal … incompatible with what our district stands for.”
“It’s also educationally deficient,” added Fields, who taught social studies at Monument Mountain Regional High School for 40 years before retiring in 2009. “It’s a top-down approach that just mirrors what the state has done for so long. Where was the input of the teachers?”
Stockbridge representative Sean Stephen, who called the single district “the most difficult option,” complained about the task force’s communication efforts, adding that he would have been better prepared if “the task force had sat down with us and explained to us what went on, but [the proposal] all of a sudden jumped out.”
School committee Chairman Steve Bannon was the elephant in the room. Bannon sat on the task force and voted for the countywide proposal, an action he later said he regretted.
Bannon said he thought 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.
Michael Wise, Great Barrington town moderator and former chair of the town finance committee, is also a member of the task force. He was the only task force member who voted against the countywide proposal.
“I think they were surprised at the result,” Wise said of his fellow task force members. “Most thought the consensus would be three districts or a union.”
Wise added that the single countywide district concept “was contrary to the advice the consultant gave about what was most feasible.”
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.
Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon is also a member of the task force. He emphasized that, “all along the group has framed its work as advisory in nature,” and that it has “no authority except to share its views with officials.”
Dillon also said the task force’s goals are not necessarily inconsistent with what Berkshire Hills wants in exploring a merger with neighboring districts.
“There may be more commonality than it looks like on the surface,” Dillon said. “The logical progression [in either case] would be to work locally first. I don’t think the work we’re doing is in opposition to what the task force is doing … It’s a parallel path.”
In making his case for the passing of his motion, Dohoney, an attorney with courtroom experience, quoted country singer Kenny Rogers: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away.”
The motion passed with five votes of the 10-member committee: Dohoney, Bannon, Fields (all of Great Barrington); Stephen (Stockbridge); and Andy Potter (West Stockbridge). Jason St. Peter (Stockbridge), Anne Hutchinson and Diane Singer (both of Great Barrington) abstained. Dan Weston (Stockbridge) recused himself because he is a teacher in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, which could be affected by the task force’s recommendation. Kristin Piasecki (Stockbridge) was absent.
Asked for his reaction to the vote, task force Chairman John Hockridge told the Edge he did not know the specific reasons for the exit, but he wished the school committee had waited until the task force presented its Phase II findings and the full explanation of the reasons for its recommendation of its “aspirational goal” of a countywide school district within the next 10 years.
“These school committee, municipality boards/city council, and community-at-large presentations will be done during the next few weeks,” Hockridge said. “With Berkshire Hills Task Force representation, they knew this was coming.”
Dohoney’s motions to open discussions separately with neighboring school districts about possible mergers elicited surprisingly little discussion, perhaps because the committee had discussed possible consolidation with those two districts — Lee Public Schools and the Southern Berkshire Regional School District — in the last couple of years.
“These are the schools we should be talking to about consolidation,” Dohoney said in making his pitch. Those two motions passed unanimously.
“I am glad to hear of their decision to meet with their neighboring school districts to explore a merger,” Hockridge told the Edge, adding that he views it as “a positive step.”
“As we have always said, school districts ‘drive the bus’ in any decisions that are made, but BCETF could have offered support for this effort, including seeking funding resources, seeking outside expertise and working with our legislative delegation to develop any special legislation that might help move any merger forward,” added Hockridge, who is also a member of the North Adams School Committee.
Dillon said he would draft a letter to members of the task force informing them of the decision of the school committee to go its own way. Meanwhile, both Dillon and Bannon said they would no longer attend task force meetings because “it’s the will of the committee.”
The next meeting of the task force will be Saturday, Sept. 16, at 9 a.m. at Nessacus Regional Middle School in Dalton.