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Member towns might override South Berkshire School District’s reluctance to pursue merger

The Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee voted unanimously to send a letter to Southern Berkshire and its five member towns asking to establish a planning group to explore consolidation for grades 9-12

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to include letters from the Sheffield, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge boards of selectmen that arrived after publication.

Great Barrington — In its quest to start talks with a neighboring district about a merger, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee appears to have been stymied by a reluctant Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

At its June 6 meeting, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee voted unanimously to send a letter to Southern Berkshire and its five member towns asking to establish a planning group to explore consolidation for grades 9-12, as provided for in Massachusetts General Law Ch. 71 Section 14.

Berkshire Hills requested a response by July 31. Copies of the letter were also sent to the selectboards of the three member towns of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District: Great Barrington, Stockbridge, and West Stockbridge.

Dennis Sears of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee, at left, with Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Through their selectmen, the Southern Berkshire towns themselves were decidedly more enthusiastic than their school committee, whose members said they knew nothing about the letter until contacted for comment by The Edge. One Southern Berkshire member and a former chairman, Bonnie Silvers of Sheffield, told Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon that the letter “feels like backstabbing.”

On the other hand, almost all five Southern Berkshire member towns responded positively to the Berkshire Hills inquiry. With the exception of Sheffield, all have written back. Click on the town name to see the corresponding letters sent to Berkshire Hills: New Marlborough; Egremont; Monterey; Alford. And click here to read the response of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee itself.

Note: the Sheffield board of selectmen responded positively on July 29. Click here to read the letter. Ditto the Stockbridge board of selectmen on July 22. Click here to read that letter. And ditto the West Stockbridge select board on Aug. 1. Click here to read that letter.

On July 1, the Sheffield Board of Selectmen discuss the recent letter from Berkshire Hills. From left, town administrator Rhonda Labombard, Nadine Hawver, Rene Wood and Martin Mitsoff. Image courtesy CTSB

At publication time, Sheffield had not formally responded, but at a meeting in June, the board of selectmen, especially longtime school district spending skeptic Nadine Hawver, reacted positively to the Berkshire Hills overture. Click here to view the meeting as recorded by CTSB and fast forward 31:00 to take in the relevant discussion.

Meanwhile, see the video below of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee’s discussion of the Southern Berkshire response at its July 25 meeting:


Southern Berkshire’s July 18 response, signed only by school committee chair Jane Burke, stated that “entering into a formal planning process for the formation of a new regional high school district with Berkshire Hills Regional School District is premature.” Instead, Burke suggested a structured yet informal meeting” between the two school committees as a starting point to talk about “common goals and vision.”

But Berkshire Hills school committee member Rich Dohoney, who made the original motion to send the letter, saw Southern Berkshire’s tepid response as a potential deal-breaker.

Berkshire Hills school committee member Rich Dohoney wondered whether SBRSD’s reluctance “kind of kills the whole deal.” Photo: Terry Cowgill

“But with Southern Berkshire voting no, it kind of kills the whole deal,” Dohoney observed at the July 25 Berkshire Hills school committee meeting.

But Berkshire Hills chair Steve Bannon countered that Southern Berkshire did not “necessarily vote no” and that “they didn’t say no to discussions.”

“Well, we didn’t ask for discussions just once,” Dohoney replied. “We’ve asked for discussions many times. We’ve always had discussions.”

Dohoney later noted the wording of the statute and how it applies to the formation of a planning group to explore a merger: “Any town, either by a majority vote of its board of selectmen and a majority vote of the school committee or by vote in town meeting duly called therefor, may create a special unpaid committee to be known as a regional school district planning committee.”

“Their town meetings could vote and override [the school committee] essentially, but I don’t know where we get with [the school committee] voting no,” Dohoney added.

Bannon suggested waiting until all five towns have formally responded and then telling the SBRSD school committee that all the district’s member towns have responded favorably and might the committee then want to reconsider its reluctance to fully engage in the process?

Berkshire Hills superintendent Peter Dillon, left, listens, as school committee chair Steve Bannon explains a possible strategy at the July 25 meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“And then if they say no, then we ask the towns to bring it up at their next town meetings,” Bannon explained. “It’s hardly the way that we would like.”

Dillon also suggested the district reach out to the Massachusetts Association of School Committees or the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools for possible guidance.

Berkshire Hills school committee member Bill Fields said he thinks “we’re getting the snub from Southern Berkshire,” but held out hope because they do want to begin a conversation.

Berkshire Hills school committee member Bill Fields, at right, said of his colleagues at SBRSD, “From looking at their discussion, I was not very optimistic.” At left is member Sean Stephen of Stockbridge. Photo: Terry Cowgill

At its June 27 meeting in Egremont town hall, it was clear that Southern Berkshire members were skeptical about the chances for success. Click here to view the meeting on CTSB. Fast forward to 28:00 to listen to the discussion about the Berkshire Hills letter.

At that meeting, Southern Berkshire members talked about having been through a failed consolidation process only a few years earlier with the K–6 Farmington River Regional School District. Art Battachi of Sheffield wearily recalled a failed attempt at a merger between the two districts in the early 1990s.

Silvers said she thought Berkshire Hills is interested in a merger because it would increase the percentage of state aid Berkshire Hills would be eligible for in a construction project to rebuild the aging Monument Mountain Regional High School.

“From looking at their discussion, I was not very optimistic,” said Fields. “I don’t know where they came up with these ideas that they have been disrespected and all that. I’ve been here for a long time and I haven’t heard that.”

Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee Chair Jane Burke, center, said she is willing to talk with Berkshire Hills Regional School district. At left is Superintendent Beth Regulbuto. At right is school committee member Jonathan Bruno. Image courtesy CTSB

Dillon said, in addition to Sheffield, Berkshire Hills has not received a reply to its letter from its own three member towns. Bannon, who also chairs the Great Barrington selectboard, said the items would be on that board’s Aug. 12 agenda.

“We’re a little late but we’ll get there,” Bannon said.

The target date for the receipt of all the responses is July 31. The Berkshire Hills school committee will take up the matter again at its next meeting on August 22.

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