In ‘shocking recommendation,’ reform panel proposes single countywide school district

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By Monday, Jul 17 News  5 Comments
The Berkshire County Education Task Force in a meeting earlier this year. The task force voted on Saturday to recommend a single countywide school district.

Dalton — A panel charged with finding ways to make the county’s schools more efficient and sustainable has recommended the creation of a single-school countywide school district within 10 years.

Before making its recommendation, the Berkshire County Education Task Force had narrowed its options to three: the creation of one countywide district, consolidating the county’s 19 school districts into three, or the establishment of three regional supervisory unions.

“I thought it was about time we made a recommendation,” Steve Bannon, a task force member who chairs the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee, said in an Edge interview. “It’s a sound recommendation but there is a lot of work to do to work out the details.”

Of the 30 members comprising the task force, 24 were present at the task force’s July 15 meeting at Nessacus Regional Middle School. The vote to recommend option one was near unanimous at 23-1.

Aerial view In Great Barrington of the schools comprising the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

Aerial view in Great Barrington of the schools comprising the Berkshire Hills Regional School District campus.

“This was not the direction we thought we were headed when we started two years ago,” explained John Hockridge, who chairs the task force and is a member of the North Adams School Committee. “But once we started doing our work, a clear consensus evolved that the one-district option presented the best opportunities for education and improved financial sustainability for the school districts.”

“It was a shocking recommendation,” added task force member Andrea Wadsworth, who is also business administrator for Lee’s schools and sits on its school committee. “When I first sat on that [task force], I never thought I would advocate for it, but then as the information gets laid out and you see the depth and breadth of all the options for the students, it made perfect sense.”

Members of the task force characterized the recommendation as “aspirational” because it would require not only special legislation at the Statehouse on Beacon Hill, but the approval of most of the county’s municipalities and school districts as well.

Still, members are confident that the goal is achievable by 2027, which is when the task force would like to see it realized. The task force estimates the consolidation of the county’s 19 schools districts into one could save taxpayers up to $36 million per year.

Bannon emphasized that a single countywide district would not necessitate the “mass closings of schools” some critics had feared, though he would not rule out the possibility that some schools could be shuttered if enrollment numbers warranted it.

“Not everything has all been fleshed out,” Bannon explained. “No student at Sheffield elementary school will be sent to Williamstown. Obviously, there will geographical limitations.”

If implemented, the consolidation would make Berkshire County the fifth largest school district in the state but one with unusual challenges. Berkshire County has approximately 15,000 students (soon to be 14,000), fewer than the city of Brockton, for example. But Brockton comprises only a little more than 21 square miles, whereas Berkshire County has about 900 square miles within its borders.

Asked why the task force has chosen one district over three, which had been viewed as a compromise measure, Hockridge said, “One of the arguments was that, 10 years from now, we might be in the same situation. If the projected decline in enrollment continues, then our newly structured districts could experience the same challenges.”

Pittsfield High School

Pittsfield High School

Hockridge credited several existing districts as having already begun the process of sharing services to save money and resources. Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon, who is also a member of the task force, is also superintendent of Shaker Mountain School Union #70, a school system that includes some small towns in north and central portions of the county. And two years ago, Berkshire Hills and Lee initiated talks on merging their districts.

How would the savings be achieved? Wadsworth pointed to several possibilities. State aid for transportation, known as Chapter 71 funds, is reserved for regional school districts. Municipal districts such as Pittsfield, Lenox and Lee do not have access to Chapter 71 funds, but they will if they become part of a regional district.

In addition, public school choice has been a vexing issue for several years, as the tuition paid by sending districts to receiving districts has been stuck at about $5,000 since choice was implemented as a result of the 1993 Education Reform Act that overhauled how education was funded in Massachusetts. Presumably, in a unified district, there would be no need to charge tuition for a student from, say Pittsfield, to attend school in Lenox.

Educational opportunities would be greatly enhanced as programs could be shared across schools whose enrollments are too small to support them individually. Hockridge has detailed them in a column he published in The Edge in April: “In the Berkshires, a school crisis – and opportunity.”

But Hockridge said there are many details that will need to be worked out as the task force enters Phase 3 of its mission. What would happen, for example, to debt accumulated in one district (e.g. Berkshire Hills is still paying off $16 million in bonds issued for its new regional elementary and middle schools in 2005) when all the districts are merged into one?

“But I don’t think we know all the implications yet,” Bannon said. “I’m not sure we know how a 15,000-student district would work.”

In an effort to mold the recommendation into a pragmatic proposal, the task force voted to hire Karla Baehr of the District Management Group, a nationwide educational consultancy. Baehr is a former deputy commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Lee Middle and High School

Lee Middle and High School

The task force has been meeting every third Saturday to address the challenges of what Hockridge says are “declining student enrollment, near-stagnant financial resources, and reduced academic offerings.”

Other task force members were enthusiastic about the recommendation.

“This is great news – a very big step forward,” said Adams town administrator Tony Mazzucco. “Berkshire County is taking the boldest step in education the commonwealth has seen in decades.”

“The task force has now decided that only the bold move of transitioning within a decade to a single district for our county can ensure the future soundness of this region’s educational programming for all our students and all our communities,” William Cameron, retired superintendent of the Central Berkshire Regional School District, said in an email. “Knowing that considerable challenges need to be met and obstacles overcome if this aspiration is to be realized, I fully support that decision.”

One skeptic of school consolidation contacted by The Edge was less than enthusiastic. Egremont resident Susan Bachelder was a staunch opponent of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee’s decision, now reconsidered after a lawsuit from the town of Egremont, to close the South Egremont School.

Bachelder favors Option 3, which would establish three supervisory school unions across the county. Contrary to the conventional use of the term, a school union does not represent organized labor, but rather it is what Hockridge calls “an umbrella over the current structure” that retains more local control for towns than a formal regional school district.

“It is suggested that prior to larger regional school districts, we establish supervisory unions by region as an easier path to consolidation,” Bachelder said in an email.

Bachelder said she remains unconvinced that the creation of larger regional school districts will cut school taxes. “Cost savings in the collective purchase of Xerox paper does not warrant greater centralization of power,” she said. “Closures and consolidations have never brought about a budget decrease.”

Mt Everett Regional High School in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

Mt Everett Regional High School in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

The task force, Bachelder said, “is comprised of vested educational interests who, much like the bureaucracy we complain about in Washington, seem to think creating more bureaucracy is the solution to declining population.”

Charlie Flynn is a former Egremont selectboard chairman and a former member of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee. Flynn is a longtime critic of the BCETF and would prefer a different approach.

“It takes the parent and the community out of education,” Flynn said of the proposed single district. “If you want to turn this whole region into a retirement community, this is the way. No parent in their right mind would stay in this area.”

Of a single school committee, Flynn said, “If you have one school committee, how representative would that committee be of the entire region? My fear is South County would be left out of the mix.”

Hockridge says, aside from transportation and school choice, other savings could come from consolidation of the central offices of the 19 districts.

“You could also share teachers or do some distance learning,” he explained. “And with a regional district, there would be only one school committee.”

This fall, the task force will get out on the road, as it also did in December, to speak to school committees, municipal bodies and focus groups about its proposal. The task force’s next meeting will be Saturday, Aug. 12, at Nessacus Middle School, Hockridge said.


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5 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    This sounds like a really stupid idea. Charlie Flynn nailed it. Also, all the talk of transportation savings is at the school district level. The taxpayer will still foot the same (or increased due to distances) bill – the state needs to get that money from somewhere.
    They throw out the idea of distance learning and reducing teachers…those can be accomplished now, without consolidation.
    Additionally, the challenges of the logistics are not factored into the cost analysis.
    And, there appears to be no plan for growth of any student population (and costs associated with that, nor who would bear those costs), as if the decline is a permanent and unchangable occurence.
    On the plus side, this would definitely lead to a boon in Charter and private schools.

    1. Pete says:

      Stupid would be to do nothing in view of decreasing enrollments and revenue. Credit these people for trying to resolve a complex problem. Maybe two districts or unions north and south would make sense in view of the geography? Doing nothing with the decreasing enrollment could result in failing schools requiring the state to come in and take them over and/or close them. What solutions do you propose to fix this problem? The current system is not sustainable.

      1. Carl says:

        Hey Pete, how about these towns do a better job MANAGING their schools so they aren’t failing! It is WRONG to shove consolidation down the throats of people in towns who are actually managing their schools and communities well. How about they QUIT WASTING MONEY on unnecessary studies and layers of administration and other activities (although in Pittsfield’s case, that only scratches the surface of the problem after decades of POOR MANAGEMENT there). How about these cities and towns crying poor do a better job ATTRACTING NEW RESIDENTS, maybe by managing their schools better, instead of whining and complaining about “the state,” “school choice,” “the charter schools,” and other factors so they can go clean out the wealthier towns of their tax revenues. MANAGING schools well seems to be working fairly well for Williamstown and Lenox and Monument Mountain and BArT and a number of other schools in this county. Maybe if the people in towns with schools that are not performing as well would wake up and DEMAND better management and leadership of their communities and schools, they would begin to regain control over these issues.

      2. Steve Farina says:

        Pete,
        You can see my early recommendations in the comment section here:
        https://theberkshireedge.com/vote-yes-on-article-28-to-support-high-school-education-and-break-barriers/
        These are specifically for the schools in GB, but can apply regionally as well.
        Also, I just picked up a copy of our local school budget, which I plan to fully review and hope to be able to offer well thought out suggestions to the school committee .

  2. Susan P. Bachelder says:

    As a small correction, I do not support the idea of unions. The costs will be in addition to, not replacing, existing Administration costs, and I see little value added. If we are, as Mr. Hockridge suggests, looking to deal with declining enrollment, why are the districts not speaking with the Towns about how to strengthen them as attractive communities in which to raise a family? With broadband a heartbeat away, to think busing and consolidation is a 21st century solution is looking in the rear view mirror.

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