Great Barrington — The Berkshire Hills Regional School District voted unanimously Thursday (July 23) night to open talks with Lee Public Schools, after Lee’s school committee said they were open to discussions about joining forces with nearby districts.
Berkshire Hills’ School Committee chairman Steve Bannon said that the Lee school committee discussed the matter at its last meeting, and said Lee was “open and willing to discuss cooperation, collaboration, regionalization with anyone who is interested.”
Bannon also noted that Lee was having such “talks” with Lenox Public Schools, “but I’m not sure where those are right now.”
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) told The Edge that “Lenox wasn’t talking back” and that it was a “missed opportunity.”
“Lee has been trying to do this for over a year,” he said. “I give Lee credit for showing leadership and thinking long term. I applaud them.”
“They seemed to have opened the door to talk to anyone,” Bannon added, and asked the committee to for permission to go forward with discussions.
Bannon noted that Andrea Wadsworth, the Lee School Committee chairman, just so happens to work in the Berkshire Hills business office. “I know Andrea and I’ve had a couple of discussions with her…I’d like her to go back to her school committee and say that we have made it very clear that we’re interested in talking to anyone who is willing to talk to us and that we would like to put a task force together with school committee members and administration to see where that would go.”
Wadsworth could not be reached for comment, but Bannon later told The Edge that he was unclear about details, since none had been discussed yet. He didn’t know whether consolidation would happen only with the high schools, for instance. “It’s a clean slate now,” he said.
The announcement comes on the heels of a Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) conference last month that highlighted school survival in a daunting rural Berkshires economic landscape. There is also a well-circulated 2015 study by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) that shows declining school enrollment and population across the Berkshires, and which prompted a more urgent look at school consolidation.
This is the reason, Rep. Pignatelli says, for his “frustration” over Lenox’s unwillingness to consider a partnership with Lee “when every other school district in the county is facing problems except Lenox. Lenox will be an island onto themselves when the dust settles here, and when they start having financial difficulty they’ll have no one to play ball with.”
But Berkshire Hills, struggling for the last two years to get Great Barrington voter approval to renovate the nearly 50-year-old Monument Mountain Regional High School due to a web of funding issues, is apparently keeping its options open.
“Good for Berkshire Hills,” Rep. Pignatelli said. “If at the end of the day it takes five, fifteen, maybe twenty years, what education will look like in south Berkshire County is that Berkshire Hills will be the mothership.” He compared the district to the University of Massachusetts, which has five campuses, “but UMass Amherst is the mothership.”
“I think it’s an interesting dynamic,” Bannon told the committee. “As long as I’ve been here we’ve not had discussions of this magnitude with Lee,” which he noted has an interim part-time superintendent with one more year left on the job.
Districts are searching high and low for ways to save as Berkshire County school budgets grow more unsustainable. Rep. Pignatelli and Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon went to Boston last week to meet with officials from Gov. Charlie Baker’s office, to rekindle funding possibilities for the Southern Berkshire Shared Services project, a collaborative of six superintendents who with Pignatelli’s help are trying to find ways to save money. The project lost a $300,000 grant in former Gov. Deval Patrick’s 9C cuts at the end of last year, but Pignatelli says that Gov. Baker’s office reached out to the group, saying they thought the project had “some real meat on the bone.”
“They said there’s not a lot of money out there,” Rep. Pignatelli said, “but he would see if we could do a patchwork quilt of funding, and we said we would do the same with community foundations or statewide foundations to get help.”
Rep. Pignatelli says that if sharing services works for school districts, “it may pave the way for sharing in town government.”
Steve Bannon said he would return to the next school committee meeting with an update, and the results of any talks.