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Berkshire public schools must consolidate to survive, conference concludes

“There is no financially sustainable model for schools anywhere in Berkshire County right now. With less than 3,500 high school students in all Berkshire County, the way the lines are drawn now, doesn’t make sense. If you don’t change, someone will make the change for you — in this case it’s the state.” -- State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli

Lee — Like rural school districts across the country, the pressure is on Berkshire County schools to make changes for a financially sustainable future amid declining enrollment and projected declines in the county’s population.

MASC Director Glenn Koocher
MASC Director Glenn Koocher

A meeting organized by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) held last week (June 22) at Lee Middle and High School highlighted what is now seen as an urgent problem in the face of these demographics, combined with the rising costs of funding schools and towns in a rural region with a small and aging population.

MASC Executive Director Glenn Koocher later said that the Annual MASC Berkshire County Legislator Forum was “one of the largest meetings ever,” with 77 people attending, including Western Massachusetts legislators, school officials and citizens. He had high praise for the delegation, who he said are “respected” and “super accessible.”

“There’s going to be pressure on a lot of these districts on how you justify maintaining these schools with low enrollment,” Koocher said. And with “the state eager to influence consolidation,” he added, the pressure is on.

CROPPED TABLE 1Berkshire Public School Enrollment Trends-6“I’ve been saying this for the last three years: I’m encouraging communities and school districts to be in charge,” said Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox). “There is no financially sustainable model for schools anywhere in Berkshire County right now. Please drive the bus, or the state may step in. You don’t want the state driving the bus. No plans for that right now, but [schools] need to get ahead of this and be in control. The numbers are staring us the face.”

CROPPED table 1Berkshire Public School Enrollment Trends-5

Indeed, those numbers are. One only need look at Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s report on county public school enrollments. Using variables such as “choice, charter and vocational school enrollments as well as births and migration,” BRPC’s Mark Maloy found that “Total regional school enrollment will continue to go down over the next 10 years by 1,789, or 11 percent, due to the decreasing number of births in the county. The majority of the school districts will face declines,” with some exceptions.

Berkshire County has seen a population reduction over the last 40 or more years, and it is expected to continue, according to the report. For the last 15 years, school enrollment has declined by 22 percent, leaving the county with 4,522 students. Enrollment is also affected by “a declining population due to the significant decrease in young adults. Without young adults, the number of births in Berkshire County has gone down and will continue to go down unless more young adults reside in the county.”

CROPPED table 2Berkshire Public School Enrollment Trends-2Sharing services like staff, is something already in process by five southern Berkshire districts after Pignatelli created momentum with the idea last year. It is now taking center stage as a workable concept short of redrawing district lines. Regionalization and consolidation are worrisome to New England communities that cherish local control and traditions.

The objectives of sharing services, Pignatelli said, are “enhancing the quality of education across district lines, saving taxpayer dollars, and maintaining individual school identities as long as possible.”

Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon said that “inroads” have been made by the shared services group. A “concrete example,” Dillon said, was that the district will be sharing a psychologist with the Richmond Consolidated School this year.

CROPPED BIRTH 3Berkshire Public School Enrollment Trends-3A grant to support shared services planning was lost last fall amid former Gov. Deval Patrick’s 9C cuts, but a new grant has been crafted, and will go after not only state funds but private philanthropies, Dillon said. The need to share services “is a national issue with rural schools,” he added. “It’s not only about cost savings, but about providing kids with high-quality education opportunities and saving money.”

Sharing services is only one approach. “Everything is on the table, but nothing’s on the agenda as of yet,” Koocher said, referring to the Lee meeting. “It was made very clear by leaders of the legislative delegation that people would be wise to take the initiative before the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DOE) attempts to step in.”

“The state can come in and do anything,” Pignatelli said, noting that Vermont had “a very similar problem,” and as a result “just passed a law that every school district has to have a minimum of 1,500 kids.” For 2015, the Lenox Public Schools, for example, has 706 students; Lee Public Schools has 665; Berkshire Hills, 1,314; Southern Berkshire Regional School District, 740.

Pignatelli says that sharing superintendents might help. He says that as directors of “overarching policy” they can be shared with less impact than sharing school principals. And since superintendents have the highest salaries, around $120,000 per year in Berkshire County, Pignatelli said, “you’ve got to go where the money is.”

Pignatelli wonders why 1,500 students from two districts could not be managed under one superintendent. He says it’s “shortsighted” not to consider, for example, a superintendent to cover both the Lee and Lenox districts. Lee presently has an interim superintendent.

“I’ve been begging someone from Lenox to tell me why it can’t work and I have yet to hear a reason.”

State Sen. Benjamin Downing, left, and Rep. William 'Smitty' Pignatelli.
State Sen. Benjamin Downing, left, and Rep. William ‘Smitty’ Pignatelli.

“Lee was interested in this conversation,” he added, “and Lenox pretty much said, ‘we’re not interested.’ Why not try it? If it doesn’t work, go back to the way it was.”

Another idea is redrawing district lines, something that inspires horror in parents everywhere, but particularly in the New England parent. Koocher says that people in rural towns “don’t like to forgo local control.”

Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) “appreciates” this sensibility but says that “no one would draw up a [Berkshire County] map today with 12 high schools, given where we are today.”

“In perfect world,” Downing added, “we’d like to have things the way they’ve been for last 40 to 50 years, but it’s putting pressure on district budgets.”

“Big money is saved when you close a school,” Koocher said. “That involves walking a line right down the third rail. People are not objective about their neighborhoods, schools.”

The Russell H. Conway Elementary School in Worthington was permitted to leave the Gateways School District.
The Russell H. Conway Elementary School in Worthington was permitted to leave the Gateway School District.

Both Koocher and Pignatelli noted that the state allowed the Worthington school to withdraw from the Gateway Regional School District because the district threatened to close the local school. The Town of Cummington’s Berkshire Trail Elementary School is headed down the same road, Pignatelli said, in withdrawing from the Central Berkshire Regional School District.

Pignatelli says this is why schools and communities have to get creative and start making changes for sustainability. “It’s putting off the inevitable collapse of schools in Berkshire County because of declining enrollment, shrinking county population as a whole, aging demographics, and greater dependence on school choice to balance budgets for some districts.”

With school choice, he said, some districts “are more fragile than others.”

There is a $200,000 loss every year for Central Berkshire when students “mainly from West Becket” choice out to the Lee District, Pignatelli said. The school choice reimbursement from the state is capped at $5,000, though the cost of educating a Berkshire County student ranges from $12,000 to $19,000.

“Look at map: it makes sense for families to go to Lee rather than Dalton, but that’s lost revenue for Central Berkshire,” Pignatelli said. “Central Berkshire and Lee could get together and say let’s redraw these lines. Lee could just take Becket if that’s what they want to do.”

“Should Monterey be part of Berkshire Hills?” Pignatelli wondered. The Monterey School is one of five towns in neighboring Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

He said these questions are about the future, about “those yet to be born.”

“That’s an opportunity we have right now–get creative, get bold,” Pignatelli said, adding that Pittsfield, however, “should not be in this discussion” because of its size. “They would be their own district no matter what.” Downing says he thinks “everything should be on the table” with regard to Pittsfield, which has two high schools. He said there are other cities with populations of 45,000 that have only one high school.

Given the distances between towns, MASC’s Koocher said that for parents and especially children, who might have to spend more time on a school bus, redefining districts is threatening.

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon.
Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon.

“We have to weigh the magic number with geography,” Dillon said. “Is 1,500 [students per district] the right amount if a 7-year-old has to be on a bus for too long.” He says it’s less of an issue for high school students.

Dillon added that transportation is an anvil on the backs of rural districts, one that will apply even more pressure if schools are merged. “Some things are within our control, some not in our control, and that’s the state,” which he says has never fully funded transportation, yet shows “interest” in regionalization. “We might get 70 percent [reimbursement] next year,” he added, noting that some years it has been funded as low as 32 percent. “The state should meet its obligation.”

Dillon said that the MASC meeting was helpful in that “a bigger group will be formed and start meeting regularly” to throw ideas around and come up with solutions. He said that the group wants to learn what the “right size” for schools is from other rural districts across the country.

Pignatelli said that for the first time the Berkshire County population has dropped just below 130,000. “With less than 3,500 high school students in all Berkshire County, the way the lines are drawn now doesn’t make sense.”

Pignatelli says it isn’t just the schools that are feeling the heat due to demographics. “Towns and schools are feeling the pinch more this year. All the demographics are also impacting town government.”

He said that a population of second homeowners who use town services but have declared residency “somewhere else” — like Florida for tax purposes –– doesn’t help matters. “It has a financial impact on us here.”

“It’s easy to say that schools are the only place that needs to look at [changes],” Dillon said. “I imagine there’s a police department for every town in Berkshire County. Does that make sense?”

Koocher said that ideas about how to “stimulate the [regional] economy,” partly with tourism, were also considered at the MASC meeting. “People were definitely expressing sense of urgency,” he said. “The great unstated concern was we’ve got to do something about this before the bad guys in Malden [tell schools what to do.]” DOE offices are located in Malden, Mass.

He said that the DOE is “held in abject contempt by educators and administrators” for its “abusive regulation, perception of arrogance, proliferation of unfunded mandates…and decades of history earning that reputation through various strategies.”

“People are worried about fulfilling their obligations to educate children,” he added, “and all the regulations that go with that.”

“It’s easy to point fingers at the state,” Pignatelli said, noting that when he was a Selectman in Lenox, he did it all the time. “You can’t ignore the numbers. There are fewer kids, rising budgets…” He said retirements and employee contracts, small class sizes, for example, “are all negotiated at the local level. The state has nothing to do with that.”

“If you don’t change, someone will make the change for you — in this case it’s the state,” Pignatelli said.

He said he’s glad people are taking it seriously. “It was the same conversation last week as a year ago, when it fell on deaf ears.”

Downing thinks that the “takeaway” from the MASC meeting is that “everyone agrees on starting point,” but that the “framework” is “where differences come in and that’s where a lot of these discussions have broken down in past. We need a concerted, region-wide planning effort.”

“Or we can do nothing,” Downing added. “That’s a choice. But if you add up all the different budget challenges [in the county], you’re looking at a loss of between 50 and 70 teaching positions…while preserving administrative positions that don’t add to the overall education for kids.”

Downing agrees that the “state needs to do better,” but that even if it did meet “all the promises made over time, we’d still be staring at this problem.”

“If we make tough choices now, we can maximize [state] dollars and make sure they are going into the classroom,” he said.

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