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Great Barrington Select Board discusses possible school district merger issues

The Great Barrington Select Board discussed possible issues surrounding the proposed merger of the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional school districts in its July 25 meeting, including the possibility of one of the eight towns in the district voting against the merger and how to build an appropriately sized school building for a new school district that would be declining in enrollment.

Great Barrington — During its regular meeting on Monday, July 25, members of the Select Board discussed potential issues surrounding the proposed merger of the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional school districts.

During the meeting, representatives of the Eight Town Regional School District Planning Board discussed the planned merger with the Select Board.

Previously, representatives of the committee met with boards in the other towns that are part of both school districts.

Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon, as a member of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District Committee, is one of the three town representatives on the Planning Board.

As part of the presentation, Regional School District Planning Board Chairman Lucy Prashker told the Select Board that one of the main reasons for the proposed merger is due to the projected decline in enrollment for both districts until 2030.

“The projection is that we’re going to have a 52 percent enrollment decline in both districts,” Prashker said. “The projected decline in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District is higher than in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, but there will be significant declines in both districts. At the same time, we’ve got increasing operational costs. The lion’s share of which is personnel costs, including salaries and benefits. Those operational costs have risen every year and are projected to continue to rise. Notwithstanding the decreasing enrollment numbers, state funding for our districts has been flat and is projected to remain flat. But while state funding has been flat, the needs of our students have been increasing in many areas, and particularly in the areas of social and emotional development.”

Select Board member Ed Abrahams asked Prashker about the possibility of moving the merged school district offices to Mt. Everett Regional High School in Sheffield to save money.

Currently, the Southern Berkshire Regional School district has offices at Mt. Everett High School, while the Berkshire Hills School District has offices at 50 Main St. in Stockbridge.

Prashker said that the board has not discussed the possibility of a move, but Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon said “it is an interesting idea. There are advantages and disadvantages to it, but I think we should talk about it.”

Abrahams also asked Prashker whether or not school closures are definitively off the table as part of the merger, or if the idea of closing a school would be revisited at some point in time.

“Southern Berkshire has, for many years, debated whether or not to close the school in Egremont and New Marlborough,” Prashker said. “There was some litigation over that a couple of years ago. Southern Berkshire School District has the opportunity to make that decision now. I would imagine that a new school district would also have that opportunity to consider that going forward, but it is not part of the preferred model that has been recommended.”

Select Board member Leigh Davis asked what the Planning Board would do if one or two of the eight towns rejected the proposed merger.

As stated at previous meetings, for the merger to be approved, votes would be held at individual town meetings, and the majority of residents at each town meeting would have to approve the agreement for the agreement to go forward.

“I’m just looking for the B plan, the worst-case scenario if we have one or two outliers,” Davis said. “What would the timing be if one or two towns did not approve it? How quickly can we turn back around to try to put something together that we could then revote on? Or would that be many years down the road?”

Prashker said that it would be theoretically possible that the Planning Board could, “relatively quickly,” come back to the towns with a new regional school district agreement, leaving out the one or two towns that voted against the original agreement.

“But it is not an eventuality that we’re working toward,” Prashker said. “We’re trying to find a way to get a ‘yes’ vote in all eight towns.”

Project Manager Jake Eberwein added that any agreement would not only need town approval, but also approval from the state’s Commissioner of Education.

As part of the proposed school district merger plans, a new high school building would be built on the campus of Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Select Board member Garfield Reed questioned the need for a new building.

“I have to admit, early on, even before I was on the Select Board, I wasn’t excited about spending money for a new school, but I do see the necessity of it,” Reed said. “But we’re talking about a larger school [building], yet a declining student population. Why are we building a larger school? Will the school we’re building be scaled for the population we have? I don’t want to build too much of a school if we don’t need it.”

“One of the really important parts of the Massachusetts School Building Authority process is to get the right number for an enrollment projection,” Dillion told Reed. “Attention is being paid to the motivation to merge the districts, which is declining enrollment. But we also want to build the right-sized high school for the students we have. The state is going to pay half of the cost, or more [for building the school]. They invest a whole lot of time to make sure the enrollment projections are right.”

Dillion added that the authority would research enrollment projections before any plan to build a new school building is approved.

“They won’t let us overbuild, and we don’t want to overbuild,” he said.

Correction: In the original version of this story, Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon was misidentified.

Clarification: After this story was published, Board Chairman Lucy Prashker wrote the following in an email: “The enrollment decline I referenced of 52 percent over the two districts is over the period 2000-2030. Most of that, 35 percent, has already occurred.”


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