Consultants from the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools brief officials at an Oct. 15 meeting from the two school districts on the mechanics of a possible merger. From left, Steve Hemman, Paul Gagliarducci and Jay Barry. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Consolidation for dummies: BHRSD and SBRSD officials briefed on nuts and bolts of merging

Stockbridge — Representatives from lobbying groups last week told a panel of public officials in two neighboring school districts that they have three options for combining and forming a new regional district.

Members of the school committees of the Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills districts, along with officials from member towns, met Oct. 15 with representatives from the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees at the Berkshire Hills district offices in Stockbridge. That panel, formed in September, is known as the Eight Town Consolidation Committee.

Eight Town Consolidation Committee member Lucy Prashker of Alford, makes a point at an Oct. 15 meeting. At left is Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Forming a new or combined district, as both have indicated a willingness to explore, could take a minimum of two to three years, said Steve Hemman, a former MARS executive director and now a consultant for the organization. In addition, there would need to be a transition period of several months to a year.

Click here to see Hemman’s brief PowerPoint presentation.

One of the factors necessitating the transition period is the matter of reconciling collective bargaining agreements between workers in the two districts — and it could potentially be expensive for the lower-paying district.

See video below of consultants and executives from MARS and MASC presenting to the school committees of Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills, along with officials from the 11 member towns of the two districts:

“Teachers cannot be paid any lower than what they were making, when you form a new region,” Hemman explained.

Public sentiment concerning a merger gathered steam when Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee member Rich Dohoney proposed in June that his district send a letter to SBRSD “for the purpose of either forming, or consolidating into, a regional high school district to serve grades 9-12.” The consensus that has emerged since then has been to establish a K-12 district instead.

But it is not clear whether Southern Berkshire would dissolve itself and become part of the larger Berkshire Hills or whether both districts would be dissolved and a new combined district would be formed.

Monterey Finance Committee member Jonathan Sylbert asks a question about process at an Oct. 15 meeting of the Eight Town Consolidation Committee. At left is Egremont Finance Committee member Tom Berkel. At right is Tara White, a member of the New Marlborough Board of Selectmen. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Hemman said either district could form a regional agreement amendment committee, invite members from the other district to join it and propose change the regional school district’s agreement to include the second district. That change would presumably have to be ratified at town meetings in all eight towns. The actual formation of the new district would also have to be approved by the commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The other possibility is to form a planning committee to explore a potential merger, using the process for forming and adding to a regional school district provided for in Massachusetts General Law Ch. 71, Section 14.

The planning committee would have to be large. It should include one member of the school committee from each town and two members of the boards of selectmen of each town. That would be a total of 24 members, all of whom, according to state law, would be appointed by each of the town moderators.

“The school committee and selectboards together make the decision to move forward,” Hemman said.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of MASC, gave a presentation on the regionalization and unionization planning aspects of forming a new district. Click here to view it. The presentation was perhaps more interesting than expected because of Koocher’s colorful observations on the state and its self-interested enthusiasm for consolidation of school districts.

“Now, for the state, that’s a good agenda for purely political reasons,” Koocher said. “It’s minimizing the amount of voices locally that might speak up in an attempt to influence the agenda that the state has.”

The Eight Town Consolidation Committee met Sept. 13 in Sheffield Town Hall. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Of the state, Koocher added, “Their agenda is to consolidate as much as possible to minimize the number of school districts and to do it for reasons that probably are easier for them to oversee.”

But Koocher insisted that the agenda of MASC, which is an independent organization representing school committees on Beacon Hill and throughout Massachusetts, “is that we are in favor of whatever the districts decide they want for themselves without the interference of a state agency that does not have a good record of collaboration.”

Koocher said Cape Cod, a region similar to the Berkshires, is keeping an eye on what happens here. Like Berkshire County, the Cape is struggling with shrinking enrollments and declining full-time populations.

Of the move to consolidate Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills, Koocher cautioned that regionalization in general is “an extremely process-heavy enterprise” that “requires Camp David-style negotiations, exceptional interpersonal collaboration, the ability to deal with multiple outlier personalities wherever they happen to be.”

Koocher also cautioned against expecting tremendous savings from a merger or consolidation. There will be some savings in back-office functions but not as much as one might think: “The real savings comes from closing a school. I think you’ll find that if you do a financial impact. You will always need the classroom teachers.”

Koocher also cited recent research indicating that consolidation of districts “is not an automatic guarantee of improvements in student outcomes.”

“It has to be done with the right planning, the right transportation, the right facility structure, the right leadership. and then you get your impact on student achievement,” he said.

The next meeting of the Eight Town Consolidation Committee is Tuesday, Nov. 19, 5 p.m., in the Berkshire Hills central offices in Stockbridge.