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