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