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The campus of the Berkshire Hills Regional School district in Great Barrington, Mass. At lower left, Monument Valley Middle School, Muddy Brook Elementary School in the center, and Monument Mountain High School at the top right.

State auditor cites Berkshire Hills in sweeping study of regional school districts

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By Wednesday, Oct 18, 2017 News 9

The office of State Auditor Suzanne Bump today (October 18) released a detailed study with broad implications for regional school districts throughout the state, including several in the Berkshires.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump

Entitled Supporting Student and Community Success: Updating the Structure and Finance of Massachusetts Regional School Districts, the 68-page report addresses several issues that have vexed Berkshire County’s regional school districts (RSDs) for years. Click here for an executive summary.

Among the key findings and recommendations:

  • Developing deeper incentives to encourage communities to regionalize, noting that the current incentives do not provide enough enticement for schools to give up some measure of local control.
  • Fully funding its commitment to reimburse 100 percent of regional transportation expenses, offer stipends to encourage efficiencies to reduce transportation costs, and allow the use of regional transportation authorities to provide RSD transportation.
  • Offering planning grants to explore the combination of existing RSDs into larger groupings.
  • Ensuring greater transparency from the Massachusetts School Building Authority on its decision-making process for districts that close school facilities.

The report also urges regional districts to conduct periodic reviews of regional agreements between a district’s member towns. In addition, Bump calls on the state Legislature to streamline the budget adoption process for RSDs and “to examine and revise inconsistent funding formulas for children whose families choose educational options outside of their home community.”

And in what seems like deja vu for those who have been following the goings-on in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, Bump urges the Legislature to “empower” the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) “to work with a willing district to develop a pilot program that would result in a single tax rate across all member towns in and RSD.”

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon.

“Whether they live in Boston, Bourne or the Berkshires, Bay Staters recognize that high quality educational opportunities play a critical role in ensuring the vibrancy and financial viability of local communities,” Bump said in a news release announcing the study.

“While our state’s educational system is highly regarded throughout the country, our analysis found that the processes governing school regionalization and its funding are antiquated, and have not kept pace with the modern challenges facing communities.”

The study highlights demographic changes, “long standing structural challenges, and funding shortfalls as key factors that de-incentivize communities from moving forward with new or enhanced school regionalization.”

For example, over the last 10 years, regional district enrollment declined by 10.5 percent, while statewide public school enrollment fell by just 1.62 percent, even as fixed costs continue to rise and state funding has proved “inadequate for many of these districts,” Bump said.

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon was quoted in the news release put out by Bump’s office. Berkshire Hills includes Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.

“I appreciate the depth and breadth of the auditor’s report,” Dillon said. “We all want to ensure that every student has access to high quality education, is engaged, and is making progress. Regional schools are facing real challenges — shifts in enrollment, unreimbursed costs including transportation, and a range of unfunded or partially funded mandates.”

In an interview, Dillon said Bump’s report addresses several issues that have affected his district since he was hired in 2009 and beyond: chronically underfunded transportation aid from the state; flat school choice tuitions paid by sending districts; lack of incentives for further consolidation.

In addition, the study indirectly addresses a proposal by Great Barrington resident resident Chip Elitzer to adopt a single tax rate to fund the district’s operations rather than assessing member towns based mostly on the number of students they send to the district.

Chip Elitzer, speaking at Great Barrington Town Meeting. Photo: David Scribner

Elitzer told The Edge he is pleased with the report but “it’s a long way from being legislation,” in part because Bump “has no legislative power.” He thinks the state Legislature needs to set up a commission or task force to study the proposals and make recommendations.

“This report is invaluable in terms of stirring up some awareness and perhaps putting more impetus behind the proposals,” Elitzer said.

“It highlighted Berkshire Hills as one of the three districts,” Dillon said of Bump’s report. “It’s giving voice to some things we’ve been saying for a long time. It’s one thing for me or someone else to say it, but it’s quite another for the state to say it.”

The other two regional districts highlighted in the report are Groton-Dunstable and the Wachusett Regional School District, the largest regional district in the state.

Dillon said the report highlights “parallel conversations that are going on.” One is “gaps in general funding” and transportation funding and the other is the “structural inequities” that nag regional school districts.

Dillon said total underfunding from the state, which had promised to fully fund the transportation cost of regional school districts, is in the range of $300,000 to $700,000 per year. And it seems that every year, the School Committee is compelled to cut teaching positions in order to keep tax increases down.

“That could cover the cost of five to eight teachers,” Dillon said of the restored aid. “Think about all those budget conversations we had and we were searching for nickels and dimes.”

Dillon said the report should become fodder for dialogue for the next several months or more.

“I’m excited about it because even if people just read the executive summary, they’re prepped for a good conversation,” he said.

Stephen Hemmen is assistant director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools, which represents most of the state’s 58 academic regional school districts that enroll approximately 107,000 students in more than 170 communities. The report, he says, “really brings attention to the issues relating to regional schools.”

“The funding issues we all know about,” Hemmen said. “But it also addresses declining enrollments. The state needs to provide incentives for schools to consolidate and share personnel.”

The state also has an incentive to see regional school districts operate more efficiently because aid to local school districts makes up a huge part of the state budget, Hemmen explained.

“The Legislature needs to look at this as a positive,” said Hemmen, who also added that there will be political obstacles to further regionalization because larger districts mean individual towns will have less clout.

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli

In an interview, state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) said he was not surprised by anything he read in Bump’s report because “it’s everything we’ve been talking about for the last 20 years.” Indeed, Pignatelli seemed to think Bump’s report raises more questions than it answers.

“We have a constitutional officer who recognizes the problem and what are we in the Legislature going to do about it?” Pignatelli asked. “It now comes down how do we do it. We need more money.”

Indeed, Bump’s office sent out a statement today announcing that two central Massachusetts lawmakers, Sen. Anne M. Gobi (D-Spencer) and Rep. Kimberly N. Ferguson (R-Holden), have indicated their intention to work to implement the report’s recommendations.

Pignatelli pointed a finger at DESE, the state agency in charge of elementary and secondary education. He said 10 years ago a DESE undersecretary acknowledged at a public meeting in Sheffield that the state had failed to adequately fund regional schools since the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.

Pignatelli said representatives from the Legislature plan to meet next week with DESE officials and for him, “it will come down to funding” — especially transportation funds, for which the state has only been meeting about 70 percent of its obligations.

“I’ve advocated for a state bid for regional school transportation,” Pignatelli said. “That way, the state will know what 100 percent is.”

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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    Interesting that for 20 years, these folks have not been able to get it right….they never will “get it right” with do many fingers in the pot…state, Feds, towns all pointing at each other. Epic failure.
    Imagine how many teachers could be hired if the redundant overhead was thrown out?

    Simplify, simplify, simplify.

    1. Mark Silver says:

      Specific suggestions, John?
      I don’t know your last name so I’m not sure which school committee you are volunteering your time on.

      1. John says:

        Privatize it all. Government has no incentive to be efficient whatsoever. There has never been a private school I have not been impressed with.

        Schools must rightsize to to the market needs. That need is rapidly diminishing. Monument Mountain is reported to be a maintenance mess. Makes no sense to renovate it given adjacent high schools in better shape. Utilize them.
        Auction off monument high school. Get it back on the tax roles. If I recall correctly, I remember seeing it as a farm of sorts before Monument was built.

        Bigger government just means bigger drains for the tax dollars.

        Folks there is more than enough money for schools. It’s just that the government representatives have not made finding schools a priority, and spent it elsewhere.

      2. Pete says:

        Cranwell, Lenox Prep, Rockwood Academy, Cornwall Academy, Kingsley Hall, Barrington School, Windsor Mt., Stockbridge School, etc., are some of the many private schools that have come and gone in the Berkshires. Private schools are not all good, some are. I do agree with your last sentence about money and priorities. If you left it to the market, I doubt any for profit entity would want to establish a School in a declining population. Market forces would guide them to a more populous and profitable location. Great to think outside the box, but this is not realistic in my opinion.

  2. Ted B. says:

    Great picture of the ” Campus” , gives you an idea of all the tax dollars that are lost on properties (homes ) that could have sat on these lots that Great Barrington will never collect taxes on ! Have Stockbridge and West Stockbridge stopped laughing yet ?

    1. John says:

      Yes it is a sad situation when you look at the ‘campus’, with no need.

      Obviously the taxpayers were ‘sold’ on a concept that never made sense.

      Obviously, the school boards see the taxpayer as a bottomless pit.

      Obviously, taxes are so high now, families move to towns that offer a more attractive cost of living. Like it or not, folks do quietly vote with their feet…

      The cumulative tax burden is horrific in GB. It only works if you are on a trust fund, or married /divorced well!

      1. Neel Webber says:

        John, you certainly seem to be passionate about education of our children, yet at the same time you certainly seem to choose to know nothing about the system of educating children. Get involved rather than pontificating about what you think is obvious.

      2. John Grogan says:

        Hey John, are you a lobbyist for one of the several companies who operate schools, already a multi-billion dollar business and growing fast as the federal government continues its assault on private education? Local education is challenged, deeply challenged, by financial issues. This region is indeed shrinking in school-age population and that trend will continue. But education is primarily a people business, and the real cost driver is insurance. Insurance costs go up from 12-25% EVERY year and have for years. What other company or industry gets to raise its rates that much and get away with it? And that cost, by far the fastest rising in education, is beyond district or local control. Is there waste in the system? Some, sure. Could the system, both locally and nationally, be improved? Certainly. But when we are talking about one or two less teachers or administrators or fewer field trips, those are not the cost drivers. I was on the school committee for several years. It’s a lot of work and, believe me, NOTHING gets done behind closed doors. There are no secret deals nor is there anyone on the take. Anywhere. If you want to improve the system, as Karen Smith once memorably said at Town Meeting, “Run against me! Please.” It’s not me anymore, but if you feel the system is poorly run, run against someone and get involved. We will all be better off with more participation from all stakeholders.

  3. Karen Smith says:

    Once again the anonymous armchair critics (noisy crickets) ooze up. Well now IS YOUR CHANCE !!!!! The issue of what to do with Monument is before us on November 2, 2017 at the School Committee meeting. Either suit up, show up, be pleasant and present or for lack of a better term…SHUTUP. You don’t have to run just be part of the process.

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