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South County schools should act on consolidation before it’s forced on them

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By Saturday, Apr 27, 2019 Viewpoints 16

The late President John F. Kennedy once said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

Residents of southern Berkshire County would be wise to heed Kennedy’s words in the current debate about the future of the region’s school districts. There is a great deal of apprehension (dare we say “fear”?) about the sustainability of our schools in the face of declining enrollments, brought on mostly by shrinking full-time populations and low birth rates. In response, a regional task force convened two years ago recommended one countywide district, but that fell mostly on deaf ears.

The fear seems to be most acute in South County’s two regional school districts. There is considerable concern in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, for example, about the future of its aging high school, where not so long ago heavy rains prompted the custodial staff to wheel out garbage cans to catch water leaking into the hallways of Monument Mountain Regional High School.

In 2013 and again a year later, taxpayers in Great Barrington — unwisely, we think — put the kibosh on a pair of $50-million-plus proposals to fix the 1960s-era school. Now five years later the school committee is considering another proposal that could run much higher, in part because construction costs have risen considerably in the interim.

Berkshire Hills officials are hoping a change in the context surrounding the district might yield a different result in Great Barrington, which failed to approve Proposition 2½ overrides in 2013 and 2014, effectively vetoing the project even though voters in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge approved it. In addition, there is the hope that an emphasis on vocational education in a new school’s design will not only persuade Berkshire Hills taxpayers to approve it but perhaps convince officials in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District to come to the table and strongly consider an overdue merger with Berkshire Hills.

If the crisis affecting Berkshire Hills is confined largely to a crumbling high school, the one afflicting Southern Berkshire is existential. According to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, which is the first and smallest K-12 regional school district in the state, is expected to see its current enrollment of approximately 645 students plummet to 483 by 2028.

If the commission’s projections are accurate, that means Mount Everett Regional School could have fewer than 120 students in grades 9 to 12. How can officials meet the needs of its students at an all-purpose high school with such low enrollments? The simple answer is it would be terribly difficult at best and impossible at worst. How, for example, does a high school of that size offer advanced placement courses, an array of modern language classes and a full slate of afterschool activities and interscholastic athletic teams?

We understand that turf protection is a natural reflex. No community wants to lose such an important identity marker as its public school. And Southern Berkshire taxpayers, who recently took on millions in debt to fix Mount Everett’s roof and boilers, are justified in being apprehensive about merging with a school district that is itself pondering a much larger and more costly project.

But common sense tells us a merger could be structured in such as way as to avoid billing the towns of Southern Berkshire for a new Monument, while allowing those towns to retire the debt incurred by the boiler and roof project. It’s unclear what would happen to the town of Richmond, which is said to be interested in formally joining Berkshire Hills for grades 9-12 after years of tuitioning its high school students into Monument. If Richmond were to join Berkshire Hills, by the way, it could save millions of dollars on a new Monument because of aid incentives offered by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Or consider this possibility: because of its geographic isolation from the rest of the county, Southern Berkshire (or its southernmost towns) might want to talk to Regional School District One, which serves six towns in northwest Connecticut, about joining it.

Lest our readers gasp, they should be reminded that interstate school district mergers are hardly unprecedented. An interstate district that includes Hanover, New Hampshire, and Norwich, Vermont, was created by an act of Congress in 1963 and was one of the last bills the aforementioned President Kennedy signed before he was gunned down on a Dallas street. And not far to our north, the towns of Clarksburg, Massachusetts, and Stamford, Vermont, are seriously considering an interstate merger.

If Southern Berkshire were to dissolve, perhaps the two towns that border Connecticut could send their children south to Region One’s Housatonic Valley Regional High School. “Housie,” as the school is affectionately known, opened in 1939 as the first regional high school in New England. It’s nearby, has plenty of excess capacity and mostly modern facilities. Moreover, there is already an existing connection between South County and the Connecticut school. Dozens of Sheffield high school students have over the years been tuitioned in to take advantage of Housatonic’s renowned vocational and agricultural education program which is housed in a state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2002.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers (and we don’t surely mean to pick on Southern Berkshire), but clearly there needs to be some out-of-the-box thinking if public education in Berkshire County is to secure its future and thrive. As state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli has said before, if we don’t consolidate to achieve efficiencies, the state will eventually step in and do it for us.

And if you think Smitty is firing blanks, look no farther than Vermont, where the legislature in Montpelier passed legislation in 2015 that, in effect, will force smaller districts to merge into larger ones in order to achieve efficiencies and bring down costs. Wouldn’t it be better to achieve those efficiencies on our own terms and stave off the interference of lawmakers on Beacon Hill?

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16 Comments   Add Comment

  1. David Blumberg says:

    50 plus million was not enough, let the proposals run much higher!, yes you are ALL on the right track,
    KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK, and don’t forget to have a “meeting” about the “meeting for the “new” plan

    1. Tim Newman says:

      Thoughtful solutions to the declining school population problem has profound significance for the future of the Southern Berkshires. This is clearly a complex and contentious issue. I don’t see how snarky passive aggressive comments do anything to advance the conversation.

  2. dennis irvine says:

    If the ‘Editorial Board’ wants to effect positive change in our communities, and schools, it would do well to examine how The Edge aids and abets the trend of gentrification that is making housing less affordable, jobs and wages less livable and our community less populous and diverse. Sideways allusions to ‘fear’ and ‘turf protection’ are not helpful. The SBRSD does not hold the key to solving the endemic problems in Great Barrington and with the BHRSD. The residents of the SBRSD will address any future declining enrollments effectively and vague threats of mandates from Beacon Hill are inappropriate impetus for educational agendas.

    1. Tim Newman says:

      Diminishing school enrollment is a broad structural problem connected to the county-wide population decline that began in the 1970’s. To blame The Edge for “aiding and abetting gentrification” … for “making housing less affordable, jobs and wages less livable and our community less populous and diverse,” seems to me to credit The Edge with influence far beyond their actual ability to influence events. It’s not my purpose to defend The Edge here, but to point out that the trends you articulate were underway long before The Edge even existed.

      The old manufacturing-based economy that sustained the Berkshires for generations barely exists today – or doesn’t exist at all. It has been replaced with something far more complex and ephemeral. I beleive our future lies in supporting our constellation of small businesses. Unless and until the small business entrepreneurial ecosystem can be vastly strengthened, I believe we will continue to struggle to fashion an economy that supports the multigenerational families that built the region along with the newer inhabitants (transplants) that have brought change in the nature of life in the Berkshires.

      Whether the BHRSD should plot a go-it-alone future, or work with neighboring school districts and plan for some sort of “consolidation” is a complex, contentious, politially charged subject. I don’t claim to have the answer, but firmly believe all constructive options should be explored with respect and openness.

      1. dennis irvine says:

        Hi Tim;

        I appreciate your thoughtful contributions, though I do disagree with some of your perspectives.

        One does not need to have begun a trend, nor be present at its inception, to contribute to it’s ongoing and accelerating impact. I think it’s a given, and quite apparent, that I was not laying the decades old process of gentrification, and all of its very negative impacts on our communities, entirely at the feet of The Berkshire Edge. I do think that local news organizations, and their editorial contributions, can have significant positive and negative influences and I have to believe that this is one of the reasons people choose to be journalists. My suggestion was that the editorial board examine their impact. And I think self-examination is best done by the self, so I will not offer any specific details in this context.

        I too believe that public discourse should remain civil. But I do not believe in policing the tone of other of people’s speech, as you have done above in response to Mr. Blumberg’s comments. And in a less direct way as you have done to me in your concluding sentence. I think it’s best to let people say what they want, how they want, short of overtly harmful speech.

    2. peter greer says:

      “it would do well to examine how The Edge aids and abets the trend of gentrification that is making housing less affordable, jobs and wages less livable and our community less populous and diverse. Sideways allusions to ‘fear’ and ‘turf protection’ are not helpful. ” Dennis I have no idea what this means; would you elaborate, please.

      1. dennis irvine says:

        Hi Peter;

        As I stated above, in my reply to Mr. Newman, my suggestion was to the editorial board. That they might examine closely what role or impact they are having, or could have, on the deleterious gentrification of our community and its consequences. I have made specific suggestions in this regard directly to the Edge, rather than in detail in this venue, because I feel that is most helpful.

        ‘There is a great deal of apprehension (dare we say “fear”?)’ and ‘We understand that turf protection is a natural reflex.’ are the two statements I refer to. I do not find these constructs accurate. Both of them are constructs not necessarily insights or even simply phrased as opinion. They allude to fears and turf protecting that may or may not be present. That they are presented as givens instead I find to be sideways and less than helpful.

        I hope this helps you better understand what I wrote.

    3. dennis irvine says:

      In retrospect, and listening to the feedback other readers have made to my comment, I feel that my use of the phrase ‘aid and abets’ was needlessly inflammatory and unfair.

      It would have been more helpful, and ultimately more clear, had I said that I wish the Edge could provide even more coverage of the issue of gentrification because it is at the root of problems such as those the BHRSD is struggling with.

  3. John says:

    We are happy that 50 million plus in spending was voted down. It makes sense given declining enrollment.
    The teachers unions sure don’t help with all the protectionist efforts.
    The drama about leaking roofs is just that. Drama. It was leaking back in the 1970s.
    Consolidation is essential. Better yet, farm it out to the private sector.

  4. Richard M Allen says:

    Contrary to some of the viewpoints expressed in this string, I don’t believe the core issue is complex at all. Experts agree that a K-12 school system with fewer than about 800 students cannot maintain the quality of education that the citizenry expects. The SBRSD has no choice but to merge with one or more adjacent districts.
    P.S.: Keeping the SBRSD satellite schools open given the existential threat to the district is insane.

    1. Tim Newman says:

      Richard, I share your opinion that SBRSD should be proactively seeking a merger partner. My comment about “complexity” was not about the pros and cons of a given school district going alone vs merging with a neighbor. As you said, below a certain enrollment level, educational experts believe delivering quality education may not be possible. If true, this means that mergers will eventually be necessary for most of the county’s school districts to survive and thrive. The complexity I was referring is essentially political. For any given inter-district negotiation, structuring a merger plan that survives that process and satifies the constituents on both sides is a large challenge that could easily fail to reach consensus.

  5. Elliott Morss says:

    The assumption underlying this discussion is that populations will continue to decline. This was based on projections made from the 2010 Census. I live in Lenox and it is not at all clear to me that South Berkshire populations will continue to decline. Increasingly people don’t have to live where they work. I prefer to wait for projections based on next year’s Census.

    1. Richard M Allen says:

      The important factor is not what’s happening to the general population but what’s happening to the school population. South Berkshire could have an increase in retirees and other older folks, but there’s no reason to think the school population will reverse its steady decline.

  6. John says:

    Would be interesting to see If Berkshire School would consider managing the high school from here on out. Realize, this is just one privatization option. Privatization has a lot of benefits.

  7. Stephen Cohen says:

    Simply, we can’t afford both high schools and their maintenance and staffing costs. Whether you accept gentrification or not, increasing tax bills are displacing long-term residents with second home owners who can more easily afford the heightened taxes. You can’t reduce property taxes substantially other than by consolidation and cost savings. The requirement should be that educational standards must remain high. It is ironic that most second home owners, being mostly older, don’t have children which attend local schools.

  8. Kayemtee says:

    I have previously, in this forum, urged consolidation of the two districts. The population with school aged children will continue to decline, and I see no steps which can be taken to change that.
    There is some validity to Dennis Irvine’s point about the Edge. Of course it is not responsible for the declining population nor can “gentrification” be laid upon their doorstep. But, they do exhibit a sort of Pollyanna optimism which is belied by the facts. The Edge often engages in hometown boosterism concerning business and real estate transactions that ignore the realities of vacant stores and apartments and insane delays in construction projects such as the old school hotel, the “floating church” and the Bridge Street condos. Why have they never reported the seeming impossibility to get a restaurant tenant at the top of Railroad Street?
    These signs of decline are precisely the reason I chose to relocate to Satatoga County, New York instead of upgrading my Monterey cabin for full time residency. People with young kids find it too difficult to make a good living in Berkshire County; most folks moving in are second homeowners and retirees, who help by paying property taxes while demanding few services, but who cause home prices to be higher than justified by the health of the County economy.
    Voters need to read the writing on the wall and face the reality of declining enrollment. They had no business rebuilding the Egremont Schoolhouse. Merging is the only way to continue to provide high quality education, which will, one hopes, at least slow the inevitable decline.

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