Consider a proactive response to the crisis of declining enrollment

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By Wednesday, Feb 22 Letters  8 Comments
A map of the South Berkshire school districts and their member towns.

To the Editor:

Last week, my letter to the editor, “From Crisis to Opportunity for Our Students,” highlighted the efforts of the Berkshire County Education Task Force (BCETF) to help our schools struggling with declining enrollment, increasing expenses, and rising tax rates.

This Op-Ed focuses on South County high schools and the need to reorganize at the high school level. The aim is to create new Vo-Tech and curriculum opportunities based on a more stable and equitable tax base. Doing nothing — or enrolling more out-of-district students — just perpetuates inequitable and unstable financial support for schools. This will only worsen as enrollments continue to shrink.

South County decline

According to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, South County will suffer an overall decline of 33 percent in high school enrollment between 2000 to 2025. Already there has been a significant downturn from 1,563 students in 2000 to 1,234 in 2015. This is projected to decrease to only 1,051 students in 2025, as depicted in the graph:

South County enrollment

The reduction among the high schools is widespread: Berkshire Hills RSD (Monument Mountain) is expected to change -22 percent, Lee -39 percent, Lenox -37 percent, Southern Berkshires RSD (Mt. Everett) -56 percent. Since non-district students are included here, South County’s enrollment is actually even lower.

South County enrollment projections

Impact of subsidizing out-of-district students

Some South County schools are bolstering declining enrollment by recruiting out-of-district students. However, this practice just temporarily masks the decline and inflicts a burden on some towns. According to the Massachusetts Department of Education, the average cost of educating K-12 students in South County is $17,500/year as of 2015. For Berkshire Hills, non-district towns contribute an average of $6,500 per student to attend BHRSD. This is $11,000 less than the actual cost. In fact, it’s a 63 percent discount. If all towns paid the same student rate of $17,500 as the three District towns, BHRSD would gain over $2 million.

As it stands, towns such as Great Barrington bear the major brunt of subsidizing out-of-district students. In 2013 and 2014, the town rejected the high school renovation for 650 students. Why? Largely because Great Barrington only had 226 high school students. The tax burden of building the school 60 percent larger than the district student population seemed inappropriate, considering the inequities.

Great Barrington’s tax rate reflects this burden. Of nearly $20 million in taxes raised in 2016, $13.5 million was collected on behalf of the School district. This amounts to 68% of total taxes. Worse yet, the increase in school assessment last year was over $1 million and is projected to be about the same this year. This is not sustainable for Great Barrington, whose taxes are already the highest of any Berkshire town relative to its average income.

Great Barrington taxpayers have no control over this recruitment strategy. Its only recourse has been to vote down the budget at town meetings or wait until a capital expenditure requires a poll vote. This eventuality pits the school against the residents and is not a productive tactic.

Competing for students is a zero-sum game, where one district or town’s gain comes at the price of a loss for another town or district. Isn’t adding out-of-district students an accounting game that requires complex administrative personnel to track? How do these manipulations improve high school education for the county, after all, we live and work in the same area without regard to a school districting?

Instead, shouldn’t we consider consolidating at the high school level? Wouldn’t it be better to make all students in the district eligible for special programs, rather than having to “choice-in” on a “lottery” basis at these greatly discounted rates.

Consider South County’s high school districts. Merging high school districts seems quite possible, as students cross district lines all the time. Boards need to be willing to do so. The four high school geographies are noted by stars in the chart above:

Potential policy alternatives

  1. DO NOTHING. CONTINUE TO COMPETE AND SQUEEZE DOWN THE ENROLLMENT OF OTHER DISTRICTS. This wastes money, destabilizes education programming, further penalizes towns like Great Barrington and Sheffield. It just kicks the can down the road.
  2.  COMBINE MONUMENT MOUNTAIN HIGH SCHOOL WITH OTHER HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICTS, PHASING OUT NON-DISTRICT ENROLLMENT OVER TIME. This could result in a same size school as today, but would only consist of towns that are full participants of the district, programmatically and financially.
  3. CONSOLIDATE SOUTH COUNTY. This would combine the four into one high school district. Doing so would eliminate duplications, offer wider access to specialized classes, create a comprehensive vocational program and draw on a larger student population.

Ability to change vs. willingness

The current citizen’s petition seeks to initiate broader discussions of alternatives—to explore possibilities apart from personal and political concerns. Professional assistance might help from the consulting group advising the Berkshire County Education Task Force

The Governor said he would be looking for recommendations from the Task Force. Shouldn’t South County seize this timely opportunity to work with neutral, educational consultants familiar with rural communities?

If we start now, we might have a right-sized high school in 3-4 years!

Sharon Gregory

Great Barrington

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8 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Susan Bachelder says:

    Use 21st century technology to think through this problem. Within three years, all of Berkshire county – God willing – will have high speed. A decade ago, the large public schools in Boston found that by creating “small schools”; within the larger school, a school a floor, they saw greater academic results. With new data bases now able to assess and arranged large quantities of data, it would seem that if we were to take the South County’s 5,000 high school students, put their classes in a data base, and analyzed where their strengths and numbers were, a new educational structure can be created for the 21st century, no matter which way the school population goes. Build a flexible response system now with the technology we now have. If you think about how Amazon, FedEx and UPS can send us books, and paper towels overnight, the logistical technology for analyzing and coordinating the academic schedules of 5, 000 high school students is clearly available. We need to stop thinking of our buildings as static repositories, create a more mobile student body with flexible class locations based on student skill, location, and needs. We have the ability to use high speed to create mobile classrooms and a true information highway. Thinking out of the box is what is required now with the new tools we have available and, in good Yankee style, repurposing the buildings we already have.

  2. John says:

    Time has long past to consolidate and rightsize the schools in the region. The quantity of schools simply does not support the number of kids around anymore.
    Property taxes have exploded and its time to put the taxpayers back into consideration

  3. John Grogan says:

    Hi Susan. The problem is we have nowhere near 5000 high school students in all of south county. As the numbers above clearly show, we have little more than 20% of that number and declining each year. Spending the necessary money on infrastructure and salaries to graduate less than 50 kids a year seems really wasteful, especially when, regional planning and adaptive use of technology can do a better job for a lot less money.

  4. Andrea Wadsworth, member of BCETF says:

    According to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, Lee Public School’s enrollment trend is steady and is not a deficit. This is based on current enrollment, births, and projected enrollment.

  5. bob says:

    good thinking…and sound ideas…the biggest drawback to this idea will be the PROVINCIALISM of some residents of the aforementioned towns who believe sharing services of any nature will somehow cost them their identity or prerogatives…

  6. Pete says:

    Some great ideas and thinking in this letter. The state reps need to get involved in this as this this is a huge issue that will continue to get worse.
    One question, what is the true cost of taking in outside students? Does this $17,500 per student include fixed costs (costs to keep the building open) with variable costs? If so, this is incorrect. The fixed costs, e.g., heating and lighting the building are the same whether there are 100 or 500 students in the building. What is the true variable per student cost of taking in the outside students, does the $6,500 cover this, probably not.

    1. Sharon Gregory says:

      Pete, Monument Mountain High School has 200 students from outside the 3 town district (Great Barrington Stockbridge in West Stockbridge with 355 students) for a total of 555. The State wanted us to renovate it for 650 students. The incremental analysis doesn’t hold water for the 3 town’s 355 high schoolers. By state statute, non-district town’s cannot be charged for any capital expenses, and for that matter, nothing beyond $5,300 per year except for special cases. The only way around these and other constraints is to consolidate since the “Choice” State rate has been constrained for decades. Do we really want our superintendents and staffs to negotiate endless cost sharing agreements for every function, class, sports team? They will surely need to add to their staff and legal expenses to do so. And for what purpose? Maintain provincialism? Let there be no mistake. BHRSD and Lenox have among the State’s highest out-of-district students, done so to survive. Let’s focus on providing better education for our students and prepare them for the future.

  7. Bill says:

    Your state reps are VERY aware of the problem. Provincialism was mentioned recently as one of the biggest hurtles. We had better get together solve this problem locally and soon.

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