School districts need strategic planning

“Shared services” are not enough. Isn't it time for school districts to cooperate in expanding educational access, opportunity, and quality?

As Berkshire Hills Regional School District (BHRSD) prepares its Statement of Intent (SOI) to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) regarding high school renovation or new construction, a strategic plan signaling the School Committee’s intentions should be a vital prerequisite.

Engaging the BHRSD’s largest town, Great Barrington, which pays the greatest portion of its tax assessment (70 percent to 73 percent) for the school district, is critical. Great Barrington’s allocated portion is also 74 percent of the school budget.

The most significant decision facing BHRSD concerns renovation or new construction of Monument Mountain Regional High School (MMRHS). Having a formal strategic plan, as well as possible contingent plans, would shore up early communication between the school district and its town constituents. This was lacking in the ill-fated proposals of 2013 and 2014.

At that time, BHRSD proposed renovating MMRHS for 700 students — twice the district student enrollment. Great Barrington voters rejected this plan because they did not want to subsidize a high school twice the size needed for district students. The lesson should be clear: BHRSD cannot build an oversized high school without first agreeing upon an appropriate strategy, specifically regional funding models.

At this time, why would the district consider spending $600,000 – $800,000 for conceptual designs for a high school, before determining the enrollment of these future facilities? Enrollment factors will depend greatly upon possible merger agreements as well as policies toward choice-in and tuition-in students. Ultimately, these strategies and assumptions will guide the School Committee and shape a final design. This cannot occur without agreements (even if interim) with neighboring communities.

Here are some strategic options to consider:

Option 1: For BHRSD Students

  • Build a school sized for students from current district towns (347 students).
  • Accommodate only as many choice-in students estimated to offset historical patterns of choice-out students – resulting in a net-even exchange.
  • Design a school that affords expansion possibilities (classrooms and commons spaces), for future flexibility.

Option 2A: For BHRSD and SBRSD Students

  • Build a school for BHRSD’s and SBRSD’s 8-town district (512 students)
  • Current mutual choice students (29 at Mt. Everett and 56 at Monument) become members of the new high school population.
  • Consider flexible use of Mt. Everett facilities for specialized satellite programming.
  • MMRHS conceptual design efforts would only proceed if the two districts agreed on campus facilities use, student assignment to these facilities, and shared operational and capital costs.

Option 2B: Include Tuition-In Students

  • Reach tuition-in commitments from neighboring towns (Richmond, Otis, Sandisfield) through a unified rate for 73+ high school students in these communities. Then, in partnership with the MSBA*, design an appropriately sized facility enabling broader educational programs and opportunities.
  • Provide a 5-year escalation plan to reach the new unified level.
  • If tuition commitments are not secured, tuition would be phased out, with appropriate size reductions in construction design.

Option 2C: Include Students from Other Towns

  • Offer other towns (Lee, Lenox) the opportunity to join a unified district and pay a unified rate. This commitment could occur ahead of construction design and reflect a higher total student census.

Option X: New Realities for Online and Community-Based Learning

In an era of pandemic disruptions and climate change extremes, creative planning is crucial. This includes new models of online distance learning, small group projects and community internships/apprenticeships. Such plans with local public and private organizations could reduce space needs for new construction.

Recommendation: If no new agreements are made within one year, Option 1 (incorporating Option X) would be the default strategy. Then, and only then, should monies be appropriated to develop “conceptual designs” for a new high school.

The Time is Now. Berkshire towns are starved for qualified talent. Why? We face instability due to declining populations, opposition to increasing tax burdens, and shrinking high school educational opportunities. “Shared services” are not enough. Isn’t it time for school districts to cooperate in expanding educational access, opportunity, and quality?

The world has changed drastically in the short lifetimes of our high school students — even more so in recent weeks. Administrators, school committees and voters are responsible for having funded under-utilized schools, instead of investing in innovative programs. It’s urgent they change priorities now. Students need to be prepared for uncertain global future and its multifaceted impact on manufacturing, finance, environment, agriculture, health, technology and security. The future of our students and of our regional economy is at stake.

*Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has indicated willingness to provide consolidation funding for our potentially precedent-setting reorganization.