South Berkshire selectmen more receptive to Berkshire Hills merger than school officials
Great Barrington — Returns are trickling in from the Berkshire Hills Regional School District’s recent overtures to its southern neighbor about a potential merger. The results so far are a mixed bag, with school committee members skeptical and selectmen generally more receptive, The Edge has learned.
Last month, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee voted to send a letter to the Southern Berkshire Regional School District and its member towns asking to establish a planning group to explore consolidation for grades 9–12. Berkshire Hills requested a response by the end of July.
At its regular meeting June 27 in Egremont Town Hall, the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee voted to draft a letter giving qualified support for the move, but it was clear that members were skeptical about the chances for success. Click here to view the meeting on Community Television for the Southern Berkshires. Fast forward to 28:00 to listen to the discussion about the letter.
All school committee members were willing to listen but many were skeptical about whether the process would ultimately lead to success. Some were no doubt experiencing merger fatigue, having been through a failed consolidation process only a few years earlier with the K–6 Farmington River Regional School District.
“I think it’s important for us to take this opportunity to engage with Berkshire Hills in a formal way,” said David Travis of New Marlborough.
Jeff Blaugrund of Alford added that “there is no harm in a dialogue” and the formation of a planning board is a process “set out by the state,” but he was concerned about the potential for increased transportation costs as a result of consolidation. Danile Kelly of Egremont echoed those concerns.
Dennis Sears of Sheffield questioned the procedural aspects of the Berkshire Hills move but recalled that talks with Farmington River ultimately broke down because the Otis-based district could not find “a business case” for a merger. Farmington River does not have a middle school or a high school so after grade 6, its students are tuitioned out to Berkshire Hills, with a smaller number going to Lee.
“They found out that because of the low tuition rate they were getting from Berkshire Hills and Lee, there was no business case,” Sears recalled. “It would have cost them a whole heckuva lot of money.”
Indeed, Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon told The Edge, Farmington River’s annual per-pupil tuition to Berkshire Hills is $8,304.87 for middle school and $9,154.28 for high school. Farmington River’s share, if it were to become part of Southern Berkshire, would surely be much higher. However, since it only pays a tuition to Berkshire Hills, Farmington River has no representation on the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee.
Sears further wondered whether there was a business case to be made for Southern Berkshire joining Berkshire Hills, which is 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.
It is perhaps not surprising that Southern Berkshire taxpayers, who recently took on millions in debt to fix Mount Everett Regional School’s roof and boilers, feel justified in being apprehensive about merging with a school district that is itself pondering a much larger and more costly project. Berkshire Hill officials have made it clear, however, that they would not expect Southern Berkshire taxpayers to pay for a new high school in Berkshire Hills, even if the two districts were to merge for grades 9–12.
Bonnie Silvers of Sheffield was upset when she initially learned from a reporter of the Berkshire Hills letter, telling Dillon last month that the Berkshire Hills move “felt like backstabbing.”
“I think this is very much akin to the old fable of the blind men and the elephant,” Silvers said. “It’s everybody coming at it from so many different directions.”
Silvers said that she, too, has no objection to talking but she repeated an assertion she made earlier last month that she thinks 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 Monument.
Indeed, a newly formed regional school district could add another 6 percentage points in reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. A substantial increase in state aid might make an expensive high school project more palatable to the Great Barrington taxpayers who effectively vetoed the proposals in 2013 and 2014.
Art Battachi of Sheffield was on the school committee in the early 1990s when the two districts last talked about merging. According to Battacchi, it did not end well.
“In my previous school committee life, I was already on the committee to discuss a merger between two school districts and it went absolutely nowhere and all it was was a waste of time,” Battachi said, “so I am interested in listening to see where this is going, but I’m not enthused about the whole thing either.”
Both Jonathan Bruno of Sheffield and Chair Jane Burke of New Marlborough said they, too, were willing to listen to what Berkshire Hills had to say. Travis added that Southern Berkshire needed to be clear-eyed in its analysis.
“I wish it were possible to set aside the financial thing, which is obviously important to many stakeholders,” said Travis, himself an experienced educational consultant. “If a consolidation at the high school level is going to help create full AP courses and better enrollment and pathways for careers, then that’s something that’s worth listening to. So I would love to see us be at least as student-centric as we are financial-centric when were having the conversations.”
A survey of the five Southern Berkshire member towns found somewhat more enthusiasm about the Berkshire Hills outreach effort. Egremont Selectman Mary Brazie said the selectboard sent a letter recently to the Berkshire Hills indicating “we would welcome taking part in talks.”
Alford town administrative assistant Roxanne Germain told The Edge the selectmen in her town have not yet taken up the matter but will do so at their regular meeting on Monday.
The New Marlborough Board of Selectmen sent a June 26 letter to Berkshire Hills school committee Chairman Steve Bannon urging the focus on discussions not be on “whether there should be consolidation” but on “how to consolidate both districts.” However, the selectmen suggested two smaller panels (one for each district) rather than a larger one comprising both districts. Click here to read the letter.
The Sheffield Board of Selectmen discussed the Berkshire Hills letter at the board’s Monday meeting. Click here to view the meeting and fast forward 31:00 review the relevant discussion. Board Chair Rene Wood, newly elected selectmen Martin Mitsoff and longtime board member Nadine Hawver were supportive of the move to discuss consolidation.
“I’m in favor of us working with our school board to formulate the right response in terms of consideration of merger plans,” Mitsoff said.
But Hawver, a longtime critic of school district spending, was emphatic: “I think it’s time to have a serious conversation about what to do with these two districts … The only way to get there is come to the table and have a conversation. It’s a conversation with the eight towns with the guidance of the school committees. We have to get serious about having a conversation on what it costs to educate our children in Berkshire County.”
Kenn Basler, who chairs the Monterey Select Board, said his board sent a letter of support to the school committees of both Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire about two weeks ago.
“The form and shape of any merger would need to be discussed,” Basler said in a brief interview. “The reality is that the future is combining.”
Indeed, enrollment trends appear to confirm Basler’s contention. Berkshire County enrollments have dropped considerably over the last 15 years. According to a Berkshire Regional Planning Commission study, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, which is the first and smallest K–12 regional school district in the state, had 1,072 students in the year 2000. The district is expected to see its current enrollment of approximately 689 students plummet to 483 by 2028.
The Mount Everett Regional School enrollment (middle and high school combined) was 299 this year. The high school (grades 9–12) had 198 students 2018–19, with a graduating class of only 41. Such low numbers put upward pressure on per-pupil costs and limit academic and extracurricular offerings. Click here to see the most recent enrollment numbers released by the district.
Some districts in Berkshire County, such as Lenox and Berkshire Hills, have stabilized their enrollments through taking advantage of the state’s public school choice program. Southern Berkshire faces obstacles in taking choice students largely because of its geographical isolation.
Basler said Monterey is in the unusual position of being a member of the Southern Berkshire district while sending a high number of its students to Berkshire Hills through school choice.
“We’re basically split between the two districts,” Basler said.
Basler said Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire have a history of rocky relations but the failed 1990s effort to consolidate was when the relationship started to worsen. The cultural differences between the two towns might have had something to do with it, he surmised.
In Berkshire Hills, Great Barrington is the economic hub of South County and Stockbridge is the focus of much of its culture. The five towns of Southern Berkshire, on the other hand, have a largely agricultural heritage.
“That’s when a lot of the animosity between the two districts started,” Basler recalled. “There was a sense of Berkshire Hills looking down on a bunch of farmers in Southern Berkshire. Some people still feel that way, but it’s time to turn the corner. Neither district can survive on its own in the long run.”