• Local
  • Pittsfield, MA
  • more weather >
Terry Cowgill
Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee and Southern Berkshire Education Futures member Bonnie Silvers was angered by the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee's letter, which she likened to 'checking off boxes.' At left is Lee superintendent H. Jake Eberwein.

SBRSD to Berkshire Hills: Letter about consolidation ‘feels like backstabbing’

More Info
By Thursday, Jun 13, 2019 News 11

Lee — Bruised feelings were the order of the day, as officials from the Southern Berkshire Regional School District reacted to a letter sent from the Berkshire Hills school committee urging the formation of a panel to explore a possible merger between the two districts.

Jane Burke, the newly appointed chair of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee, said the move “seemed disrespectful” and “feels like backstabbing” given that she and others in her district knew nothing about the letter until contacted for comment by The Edge on Sunday.

Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee Chair Jane Burke (at right) acknowledges a member of the audience. To her immediate right is her district’s Superintendent Beth Regulbuto and Peter Dillon, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Burke and others weighed in on the subject near the end of a meeting Tuesday in Lee of Southern Berkshire Education Futures, a group formed in 2017 to explore the future of South County’s public schools, whether it be in the form of mergers or shared services.

“To have it come out of the blue and find out about it by cable tv or somebody sending me an email seems very disrespectful of the agreement that we made to be collaborative,” said Burke, whose regional school district was the first serving grades K–12 to be formed in Massachusetts and is also currently the smallest. The five-town district was established in 1953.

“Southern Berkshire has been undermined and talked down to ever since I got here,” Burke continued. “So we’ve been around this before and if we want to trust each other, we have to have conversations. It feels like backstabbing even though I certainly understand why they need to do that and you can’t build a new school without exploring all the options.”

At last Thursday’s school committee meeting, Rich Dohoney of Great Barrington proposed that Berkshire Hills issue a written request to its member towns, along with the Southern Berkshire Regional School District and its own member towns, to form a planning board “for the purpose of either forming, or consolidating into, a regional high school district to serve grades 9-12.” The motion requests a written response from Southern Berkshire by July 31, 2019.

Mount Everett Regional School, on the Sheffield campus of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

Click here to read the entire text of Dohoney’s motion, which was passed unanimously by his school committee. Dohoney has pointed out that the process for forming and adding to a regional school district is provided for in Massachusetts General Law ch. 71, Section 14.

“Folks on my school committee might argue that … forming a regional school district planning board is just opening a dialogue,” Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon countered. As for the lack of communication, Dillon argued that “to do it by backchannel would be a violation of [state] open meeting law.”

But Southern Berkshire school committee member Bonnie Silvers would have none of it. Silvers, who also learned of the letter after a request for comment from The Edge, said she “came away with the feeling that your district is checking off boxes.”

“One of the things we know you were told … was to try to consolidate and work in joining with another district,” Silvers said.

It was a reference to the fact that Berkshire Hills officials are engaged in the process of deciding what to do about the aging Monument Mountain Regional High School after a pair of $50-million-plus referendums to renovate it failed in 2013 and again a year later.

A view of Monument Mountain Regional High School from the Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School playground parking lot. Photo: Terry Cowgill

If Berkshire Hills were to add another town to its district or merge with another district, the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which helps fund local school building projects, would substantially increase its aid level.

Earlier this year, Dillon, who is also the part-time superintendent for the Shaker Mountain School Union, said there was a chance that the town of Richmond was interested in joining Berkshire Hills for grades 9–12. Such a move would add up to 6 percentage points to the level of reimbursement or, Dillon estimated, $4 million to $5 million in additional state aid for a new high school.

This happened not far away in 2011, when the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District was formed after Granville joined the other two towns in a new school district.

After embarking on a $72 million project that included a new middle and high school, the new district was reimbursed more than 60 percent by the MSBA, or $42.6 million and a full 6 percentage points higher than it would have been otherwise.

While Dohoney’s proposal for the planning board calls for the possible formation of a new district for grades 9–12, Silvers noted that Southern Berkshire recently spent almost two years redesigning its middle school program.

“This was an absolute stab to neighbors,” Silver continued. “It could have been handled in another way if all you’re doing is an option to cover another base.”

Lee school committee member Andrea Wadsworth seemed to be the only one smiling at a June 11 Southern Berkshire Educational Futures meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

But SBEF panel member Andrea Wadsworth, who is also the Lee Public Schools business administrator and a member of its school committee, applauded the Berkshire Hills initiative and said Southern Berkshire went through a similar process with the Farmington River Regional School District a few years ago. Southern Berkshire Superintendent Beth Regulbuto noted that a move toward a planning board exploring consolidation between Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills has been “brought up at least three times by this body [SBEF].”

“But in fairness to Rich, why is anyone surprised?” Wadsworth asked rhetorically. “I think the conversation here is appropriate because we’re all trying to work together. We’re four districts sitting at a table and I know you guys are upset, but I give them kudos for making an outreach and if you two can do it, then we maybe all could get involved.”

SBEF member Bob Vaughan, who is a Lenox School Committee member and a former principal in the Lenox schools, said the process for forming a planning board, holding meetings on a potential merge and making a recommendation “is probably a three-year process.”

At a June 11 meeting, Southern Berkshire Educational Futures member Bob Vaughan of Lenox said the proposed planning board could be the beginning of a three-year process. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“I think it would have been great if Rich Dohoney had called and said, ‘We’re going to have this motion,’ but obviously somebody had to make the initial overture,” Vaughan said. “Sounds like that could have been done differently.”

Burke said her school committee meets Thursday, June 13, and she will share Dohoney’s letter with members and the public.

“We certainly owe it to our constituents to weigh in and have them give us feedback,” Burke said. “Before we even have a planning board, I want to take the temperature of our towns. There’s no point in having another planning team if it looks like a dead end from the beginning.”

Click here to listen to an audio recording of Tuesday’s SBEF meeting in the Lee Middle and High School library. The discussion of Dohoney’s motion begins just past the one-hour mark and lasts 10 to 15 minutes. Click here, here and here to see other documents distributed at the meeting.


More by »
»

11 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Mark Silver says:

    The members of the SBRSD need a refresher on the open meeting law. Seriously, what were they expecting? If they don’t want to merge, say so. But don’t blame BHRSD for following the law.

    For good or for bad, (I guess, in this case, bad,) public committees in Massachusetts conduct their business in the open. No member of the BHRSD is allowed to speak for the whole committee unless authorized to do so by the whole committee, and the whole committee isn’t allowed to have conversations that aren’t public and in the press.

    Now, SB, grow up and deal with the request on it’s merits.

    And, why would Berkshire Hills want to join with a district that is mostly known for infighting between towns, an inability to keep administrators, and a mad rush to the exits by the principal and teachers.

    1. Carl Stewart says:

      One of the benefits of the laissez-faire policy of The Berkshire Edge on posted comments is that it allows uninformed and biased statements such as this by Mark Silver to get an airing. What Mr. Silver should not be allowed to do is to comment on laws that he apparently knows nothing or, at best, very little, about. The Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law (Mass. Gen. Laws, Chap. 30a, Sec. 18-25 does not prohibit a private, i.e., “secret” (or to use another phrase, “back-channel”) meeting between the Berkshire Hills’ Dohoney and someone from Southern Berkshire, for example, the recently-elected chair of their school committee, Jane Burke. In fact, a private meeting between Berkshire Hills superintendent Peter Dillon and Dohoney and counterparts at Southern Berkshire would have been fine and in accordance with the law. For anyone who cannot be bothered with reading the statute itself, the Attorney General publishes an easy-to-comprehend guide to the law, which guide is known to the cognoscenti, as “The Open Meeting Law for Dummies.”

      1. Mark Silver says:

        Actually, Mr. Stewart, nothing I said about the open meeting law is incorrect. Try reading my comment again.

        What you are suggesting is that a member of one committee speak to a member of another. I’m sure you are aware that neither would be representing a committee, they would be two individuals with as much authority to talk about a merger as I have.

        I’m not accusing you of having tried to get around open meeting laws when you were on the committee, but it sure sounds like you are defending a practice that violates the spirit of the law. Not that lawyers care about the spirit of the law if there’s a convenient work around.

      2. Joseph Method says:

        https://www.mass.gov/info-details/frequently-asked-questions-about-the-open-meeting-law#frequently-asked-questions-about-meetings-

        “Nevertheless, we caution public bodies about meeting when a quorum is not present. The Open Meeting Law prohibits serial communication between or among members of a public body that reach a quorum of members outside of a noticed meeting. Thus, when a sub-quorum discusses a topic, which is then shared with a quorum outside of a meeting, it may be considered improper deliberation.”

  2. Art A says:

    While it’s likely the request could have been made with more sensitivity, let’s hope bruised egos, even if warranted, won’t stop constructive discussion. Declining enrollment, rising costs, and the ability of citizens to pay for those rising costs while balancing the needs of our students is far more important. Consolidation likely makes sense.

  3. Ted B. says:

    How’s about this for an idea …….since something has to be done with good ole Monument Mountain.
    Lets build a NEW one on the Sheffield flats and then consolidate . Make busing equally painful for both districts !

  4. Steve Farina says:

    While I recognize that I am merely some guy sitting behind a keyboard on this issue, it seems to me like there is a dearth of VISION on this whole issue. Why in the world do we think that the education model of the last 6+ decades is going to carry on for another.
    Building a new behemoth, regardless of where it is placed, is short-sighted. The next hundred years will call for flexibility in structures, embracing of technology, and thinking outside of busing and reimbursement (by the way, State reimbursement is still TAXPAYER money, and not real savings).
    Consolidation is a death blow to the county.
    Collaborate together to increase efficiency and improve educational offerings for our children while embracing current (and cutting edge) technology.
    Think outside the $50-$100Million box.
    Collaborate, Innovate, Educate!

  5. Ted B. says:

    How’s this for an idea Steve ! Mount solar panels on flat roofed buildings . And mount them on staging above those paved parking lots ! Make some $ ! Eventually there will be NO MORE schools ! As in buildings ! There will be holograms of the best teachers of all subjects coming out of a very smart phone ! The only reason to have a school is to learn recess and gym !

    1. Steve Farina says:

      I like the creative idea, Ted. I’m not sure how much $$ wold be generated by the solar panels. Utilizing the parking lot for such a purpose is not only timely, it is an increasing practice, and any money generated can definitely be used to offset expenses.
      I think we are a good way from holographic teachers, however, we are heading in a direction which may bring us there.
      Perhaps BHRSD can do small renovations allowing for continued use of certain areas of the existing high school (offices, gymnasium, cafeteria, certain classrooms, etc), continue using classroom areas which do not yet facilitate, nor require, high speed communication technology, and start building smaller “education hubs” – maybe even right there on the existing campus. Each hub could be a specialty, or generic where appropriate, education room with a high speed connection to a collaborative, interactive, instruction setting. This is not a far off future option, this can be done right now with current technology and improved with increasing technologies, such as 5G when it rolls out. In fact, maybe now is the time to start having our legislature (and FCC) carve out a requirement for a frequency and certain bandwidth dedicated to public education.
      Building a small $1million facility, or even 2 or 3, will be more efficient, more flexible, and far less costly than one huge $50million+ building.
      Collaboration does not need 20 Towns voting to approve it, does not take any town’s autonomy, and can be expanded to allow education lead by the brightest minds and best teachers anywhere in the county, country – or world for that matter.
      This is all available right now, and in the near future. Stop looking backwards to the last 60 years and start looking forward to the next 60.
      Maybe we can have a new mantra, “No school district gets left behind”

  6. Stephen Cohen says:

    The problem is happening now! Bastia! The two districts must immediately start talking about consolidation and/or other ways to save money and ensure quality education. The discussions and disputes over various statutes and egos are merely a vehicle to delay crucial discussions. How long will our citizens be taxed to death for an inefficient system with a declining student population?

    1. Howie Lisnoff says:

      Steve has long been a voice of reason in all of this. Put away the agendas, reason it out through debate, and consolidate. Students will be the ones who benefit from pooling of resources and so will their families and taxpayers.

What's your opinion?

We welcome your comments and appreciate your respect for others. We kindly ask you to keep your comments as civil and focused as possible. If this is your first time leaving a comment on our website we will send you an email confirmation to validate your identity.