Lee, Berkshire Hills school districts consider aspects of consolidation

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By Sunday, Jul 26 News  9 Comments
A merger between Monument Mountain Regional High School and Lee High School is one item that will be under discussion between the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee and its counterpart in Lee.

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.”

Berkshire Hills School Committee Chair Steve Bannon asks the committee for permission to respond to Lee Public Schools' announcement that they are open and willing to talk about collaboration. Photo: Heather Bellow

Berkshire Hills School Committee Chair Steve Bannon asks the committee for permission to respond to Lee Public Schools’ announcement that they are open and willing to talk about collaboration. Photo: Heather Bellow

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.

The Berkshire Hills Regional School District campus in Great Barrington: at lower left, Monument Valley Middle School, Muddy Brook Elementary School in the center, and Monument Mountain High School at the top right.

The Berkshire Hills Regional School District campus in Great Barrington: at lower left, Monument Valley Middle School, Muddy Brook Elementary School in the center, and Monument Mountain High School at the top right.

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.”

Lee Middle and High School.

Lee Middle and High School.

“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.


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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Patrick Fennell says:

    It should cost no money to put a bunch of people in a room to work out a better system. Just put two representatives from all six south county school districts and work something out. Bring in the crooks I mean lawyers and pols later in the process.

  2. Heather Bellow says:

    I just removed a comment that personally insults the previous commenter. We want to hear from everyone, no matter what your opinion. But personal attacks will be removed. Thank you.

    1. Carl Stewart says:

      Heather.

      If the Edge is going to try to maintain civility in its comments, then shouldn’t Patrick Fennell be reprimanded for labeling lawyers and politicians “crooks”? If he’d inserted the adjective “Jewish” before “lawyers” what would have been the response of The Edge?

      1. Heather Bellow says:

        Hi Carl,

        As it turned out the message I deleted was written by someone using the name of a notable person who lives in these parts. We had to go in and weed the criminal out from a number different stories. He was attacking Patrick specifically, rather than staying on topic.
        If people want to say that lawyers and politicians as a class are “crooks,” they can do that, however silly it is to blanket entire professions. What we are trying to avoid here is all out personal warfare where anything goes. It is not a science, and there is often grey area, as you point out.

      2. So Carl, we shouldn’t quote what Shakespeare had to say about lawyers?

    2. Kevin Zurrin says:

      Heather if a person’s comment insults a previous commenter’s comment then it should remain. When another person responds to my comment I welcome the discourse. If you remove a comment you are saying that you welcome anyone’s commentary as long as it agrees with yours. When someone states an opinion then they themselves open themselves to others who may make insulting comments against them personally. This is the result of free speech. However, if there is a libelous statement made against someone personally then it is your responsibility to remove any unlawful libelous comments from your site. Was the comment in question a libelous statement about a specific person?

      1. Heather Bellow says:

        Here’s the deal. The comment I removed, aside from being hateful, was from a person who is using a false name and a masked email address. It happens to be the same name as a notable GB citizen, who when asked if this was him, said it was not and that he did not use email.

        While it is very amusing, we can’t allow it. How would you feel if someone commented using your name? We rarely remove comments for any reason, but we have to insist that people don’t try to start trouble this way.

        And to respond to said troublemaker, who had another comment removed this morning, yes we are all for free speech. But you are warping the dialogue here when you hide behind another person who actually exists, and who may not want your views to pass for his.

  3. GMHeller says:

    Bannon and Pignatelli are moving in the wrong direction. Greater centralization is NOT the answer. It doesn’t lower costs and hasn’t in Berkshire County in all the years it’s been tried .
    And more importantly, centralization does not improve the quality of education provided to the kids, and hasn’t in BC in all the years it’s been tried.
    If you don’t believe this, compare BC kids’ test scores to those of kids from the rest of the Commonwealth or surrounding states.
    De-centralization is the answer.
    This means small local schools dispersed throughout the small towns of Berkshire County, with budgets, hiring, and curricula controlled by voters in those respective towns.
    Not having to waste time and millions of dollars daily commuting long distances by bus is one obvious saving.
    Not having expensive layers of school bureaucracy is another huge savings.
    All those savings are better invested in upgrading those above-mentioned small local schools along with finding the best teachers and paying them higher salaries. (It’s sure as heck a lot smarter than wasting all those tens of millions of dollars on the bureaucracy needed to service the present regional school districts and the legion of school busses servicing same.)
    De-centralizing returns community control of schools, schooling, and paying for it all back to the local towns.
    Think of how many generations of children were successfully taught in towns’ one and two-room schools before the advent of the disastrous concept of shuttling children daily to distant regional schools.

  4. Matthew P says:

    I learnt how to inscribe my poems at this venearable institution. While not the King’s English, they do teach rather passably.

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Mark Hinman, 54, of Pittsfield

Monday, Oct 16 - Mark was employed as a paver operator for Tri-Town Paving for 28 years, with a crew that he loved like family.

Louis J. DiGrigoli, 69, of Lee, multi-faceted entrepreneur

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