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The campuses of the schools comprising the Berkshire Hills Regional School District: Monument Mountain Regional High School in center; Muddy Brook Regional Middle School behind it and to the left; and beyond the elementary school, Monument Valley Regional Middle School.

School districts: Time to decide on direction

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By Monday, Nov 26, 2018 Viewpoints 3

Both Southern Berkshire Regional School District (SBRSD) and Berkshire Hills Regional School District (BHRSD) are facing inflection points. Our challenge is to find opportunities for positive outcomes.

The confluence of events in South County over the past five years includes recent election-related discussions about consolidating the district. It’s an opportune time since plans for BHRSD’s Monument Mountain Regional High School building are being addressed. New approaches need to be developed after the rejection of renovation plans in 2013 and 2014.

The entrance to Mt. Everett Regional High School in Sheffield, on the campus of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

Residents of both districts seem to agree that local elementary schools should remain “local.”  However, there appears to be support for creating a multi-district high school. Doing so would provide opportunities to harness broader external resources including Berkshire Community College, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, MCLA (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts).

What’s the hurry after five years of discussion?

Schools and towns launch their budget cycles in the fall and, by January, budgets are consolidated for public discussions. It would be an opportune time to propose a budget earmark of say, $50,000, to create alternative plans for change. This would represent a fraction of one percent of each district’s gross budget.

Rather than wait until February when budgets have been solidified, I suggest that residents in the towns involved make their opinions known to their school committees and select boards.

Decision making seems stalled on “resource sharing,” rather than consolidation. Consolidation provides unified coordination points and time schedules. Ultimately, consolidation delivers broader and more cost-efficient access to student resources with fewer layers of administrative costs.

Consider the work that supports some level of consolidation:

  • Massachusetts State Auditor Suzanne Bump recently completed an extensive study on needed changes, including consolidation among regional school districts. Having been a long-time resident of Great Barrington, her recommendations are notably sensitive to rural issues that have loomed large.
  • Over the past three years, the Berkshire County Education Task Force (BCETF) spent over $300,000 on consulting by reputable education specialists. Their July 2017 (Phase II) report contained a rich data base, excellent analyses and five alternatives encompassing $167 million of county expenditures covering our 16,000 students.
  • BCETF’s Phase III was intended to assist individual school districts to review, upon request, the content of the report.

We could extract value from this completed work as it applies to South County districts and advance needed decision making. Consulting earmarks would go a long way to moving this forward.

Should we, or should we not consolidate our two school districts in South County? With five years behind us, it is time to decide our direction!

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3 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Susan P Bachelder says:

    I could not agree more. Over ten years ago, after closure of the elementary schools in SBRSD was voted down – for all the right reasons – a plan to fund a review of the five towns’ physical systems was also voted down. For some, imagining what we could do with our present buildings was not part of their mandate. For a citizen paying for it all, it should be. Not only should we be looking at the educational meld, but take into account the fiscal impact and restructuring of maintenance of all physical systems – an issue that drives heated discussions in both districts. Where new structures are being considered, new delivery mechanisms and student body mobility must be part of the equation. Old structures, and their future uses, will continue to impact our views. We need to separate these two issues. Where and how the education is delivered and what a new “campus” looks like will have to be clearly defined to make any progress. None of us want to create another Housatonic where a vibrant community struggles to work with their abandoned school building in the heart of their town.

  2. Linda Baxter says:

    YES Sharon! Let’s consolidate the high schools! We will be able to offer more options for all the kids.

    1. Sharon Gregory says:

      Please ask your School Chair to add the topic to the next meeting agenda or to create a public forum for further discussion. Ask what percent of capacity the schools are operating at. (Most schools in Berkshire County are operating below 2/3rds capacity and many only due to “choice-in alternatives, see BCETF report.). Contact your Select Board to ask what percent of your tax assessment is represented by the school budget. (In Great Barrington, it’s nearly 70%.) And what discussions are Select Boards providing residents other than voting “yes or no” on the budget each year at Town Meetings? In BHRSD, a Regional Agreement Amendment Committee was formed consisting of Select Board members, School Committee members and appointed residents. Could a similar organization be developed that is focused on the possibilities of consolidation for each district in a timely fashion? Insist on it!

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