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Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee Chair Jane Burke explains her committee's recent actions at an Aug. 22 meeting. At left is Vice Chair Jonathan Bruno. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In ‘historic night,’ two districts set wheels in motion for merger

By Friday, Aug 23, 2019 News 6

Great Barrington — In what was later described as an “historic night,” officials from neighboring school districts agreed Thursday to form joint panels to explore consolidation.

An aerial view of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District campus.

The school committees of two South County regional school districts — Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire — voted unanimously to form a pair of joint committees to establish common ground and explore the logistics of forming a combined school district for grades pre-kindergarten to 12.

It was a night marked by travel. Earlier in the evening, the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee had met in Sheffield and endorsed a resolution to take the “necessary actions toward initializing discussion with the Berkshire Hills Regional School District toward the creation of a consolidated pre-K-12 regional school district.”

Jane Burke, who chairs the SBRSD school committee, then traveled, along with vice chair Jonathan Bruno, to the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee’s meeting at Monument Valley Regional Middle School in Great Barrington to present the resolution.

See video below of the SBRSD school committee’s discussion on the potential school district consolidation on Thursday, Aug. 22:

The emphasis seemed to be on including the towns in the decision and on future deliberations as well. In June, the Berkshire Hills school committee voted to send a letter to the Southern Berkshire school committee, its member towns and the Berkshire Hills members towns, requesting to form a planning board “for the purpose of either forming, or consolidating into, a regional high school district to serve grades 9-12.”

Southern Berkshire school committee members and selectmen from its member towns have since made it known that they are not interested in forming a new regional school district only for the high school grades. Berkshire Hills has since agreed.

Berkshire Hills Regional School District officials ask questions of Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee chair Jane Burke at an Aug. 22 meeting. From left, superintendent Peter Dillon, school committee Chair Steve Bannon and Andy Potter. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Berkshire Hills is comprised of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. Southern Berkshire has five member towns: Sheffield, which is by far the largest; New Marlborough; Egremont; Monterey; and Alford.

Berkshire Hills voted unanimously to appoint two subcommittees. The first will focus on the nuts and bolts of a potential consolidation. It will include representatives from the selectboards of the eight towns, school committee members and superintendents from both districts.

Berkshire Hills chairman Steve Bannon noted that the selectmen in the two districts’ member towns had requested that the process be “town-centric.” Click here to read the responses from the towns to the original Berkshire Hills letter.

See video below of members of both school committees discussing the consolidation process at Thursday’s Berkshire Hills school committee meeting:

On the recommendation of the Southern Berkshire school committee, a second subcommittee would focus on the educational aspect of the potential consolidation. That panel would consist of school committee members from both districts, as well as the superintendents and members of selectboards. The Berkshire Hills school committee approved the appointment of both panels.

Berkshire Hills superintendent Peter Dillon also suggested obtaining the services of a consultant from either the Massachusetts Association of School Committees or the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools. The consultant would be knowledgeable about the process and facilitate discussion.

At an Aug. 22 meeting, Berkshire Hills officials discuss the composition of the two panels that were established. From left, school committee member Rich Dohoney, business administrator Sharon Harrison, superintendent Peter Dillon and school committee Chair Steve Bannon. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“Their only role would be to outline some of the technical issues and then help facilitate conversations,” Dillon said.

As Berkshire Hills school committee member and attorney Rich Dohoney has pointed out, the process for consolidation and creation of a new school district is provided for in state law, Massachusetts General Law Ch. 71 Section 14.

At an Aug. 22 meeting, Rene Wood, who chairs the Sheffield Board of Selectmen, said her town would be happy to take the lead among member towns of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Rene Wood, who chairs the Sheffield Board of Selectmen, noted that the response letters from the five towns in Southern Berkshire were “extremely similar and that is because we speak with one voice.”

Wood offered to work with Bannon, who also chairs the Great Barrington Selectboard, but said that, in the Southern Berkshire district, Sheffield would be happy to take the lead.

A date for the first meeting of the two subcommittees will be announced as soon as it can be agreed upon, but no later than Sunday, Sept. 15.

“It’s a historic evening and I hope it’s the beginning of a very fruitful process,” Bannon said.

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