NEWS ANALYSIS: Regional school merger committee has done a great job, but problems may arise

South Berkshire County—The Task of the Eight Town Regional School District Planning Board is monumental, and, if his recommendation for school consolidation is approved by voters, the result would mark an impressive milestone: the first amalgamation of two regional school districts in state history.

But at this point, it’s a big “if”, because there are more and more signs of trouble to come. When formed in early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the board considered ways to make Berkshire Hills and South Berkshire Regional School Districts more efficient while expanding offerings. academic and extracurricular activities for students in both districts.

The oversized 23-member volunteer board includes members who are public servants or general citizens in all eight cities. Options considered ranged from increased sharing of services to an outright amalgamation of the two small rural districts.

Guided by a state-defined processadvice is talented consulting teamled by Jake Eberwein, former superintendent of Pittsfield and Lee schools, recommended that the two local school districts form a single district that keeps the towns’ elementary schools intact, with grades 9–12 housed in a new high school in Great Barrington.

Sheffeld’s Mount Everett Regional School, which currently houses grades 7-12 in the Southern District, would be ‘repurposed’, while the rest of the campus, including Undermountain Elementary School, would remain open for business .

The facade of the aging Monument Mountain Regional High School. Photo by Heather Bellow

It was an undeniably bold and visionary move, one that could change the lives of thousands of schoolchildren down the generations. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details or, as a similar aphorism goes, “God is in the details”, which means whatever you do, be thorough. Or, to put it more bluntly, details are super important.

By a 16-to-6 margin, the board voted in April to explore the latter option, one that would send SBRSD high school students to a new Monument Mountain Regional High School. For those clamoring for the aforementioned details, the board and its team will dig deeper into the proposal and do more research on the plan’s implications and logistics before sending it out to voters, likely next year.

On many levels, the proposal makes a lot of sense. The most alarming are the demographic history and projections set up by the research team. Enrollment at Berkshire Hills, which includes Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, has fallen from 1,612 students in 2000 to 1,163 in 2020. By 2030, projections predict the loss of almost 200 more students, a drop by more than 45% compared to the course of 30 years.

Even more startling are the losses suffered in South Berkshire, which includes five towns near the Connecticut border in the lower part of the county. SBRSD enrollment peaked at 1,072 in 2000 and is expected to drop to 430 by 2030, a staggering loss of more than 62% over 30 years.

This sharp downward trend in the student population is caused by several factors: the loss of full-time population as more permanent residents retire and sell to part-time workers, fewer recent graduates settle in the area due to lack of economic opportunity and lower birth rates in our area of ​​the country.

In a hallway at Monument Mountain Regional High School, barrels collected rainwater that leaked from the ceiling before the roof was repaired a few years ago. Photo by Ben Bellow.

The consequences of this decline in the student population are potentially crippling. If, for example, Mount Everett had a school-age population of 132 students, as projections suggest by 2030, it would be nearly impossible to operate a comprehensive high school.

With around 33 students in each class, offerings at all levels would be tight. Interscholastic athletics and co-curricular extracurricular activities would be severely restricted. Advanced placement courses would be virtually impossible to offer, crippling the ability of some students to gain admission to highly selective colleges.

Unused classrooms would become the order of the day and, worst of all, the cost per student would skyrocket. It seems counter-intuitive, but the smaller the schools, the more expensive they become. This is due to the fixed costs associated with running a school district, including heating and cooling spaces, maintaining buildings and grounds, and continuing to operate bus routes with nearly empty vehicles. . And administration is highly unlikely to decrease, largely because of state law and compliance requirements, paperwork and oversight costs for small school districts are comparable, whether there has 4,000 students or 400.

The situation for Berkshire Hills is not so bleak, in part due to the size of Great Barrington, the district’s largest sending town. It seems Berkshire Hills’ most pressing need is for a new high school to replace the aging landmark. And therein lies the problem.

Jane Burke. Edge file photo.

There have been whispers, given recently by Jane Burke of New Marlborough, an RSDPB member and chair of the South Berkshire Regional School Board, that the main reason Berkshire Hills is pursuing the merger of the two districts is to bring the South Berkshire to share in the costs of a new secondary school. But Berkshire Hills officials were quick to dismiss that conjecture, insisting that, at most, South Berkshire ratepayers could pick up 10% of the costs, which is far lower than the percentage of Monument students that South from Berkshire would send to school.

Some parents in South Berkshire rightly fear they will lose their collective identity if their children are bused to a new high school in Great Barrington. But the new school will in all likelihood have a significantly expanded Vocational-Vocational-Technical Education (CVTE) curriculum, which would provide greater non-university preparation choices for students across the region, including South Berkshire.

Voters in all eight cities must approve the proposal for it to go further. It’s a heavyweight, given the level of skepticism that has arisen over the past few months. Although they did not take a formal vote on the matter, members of Egremont’s finance committee seem highly skeptical of the proposal.

Additionally, three Egremont members of the RSDPB, George McGurn, Danile Jordan Kelly and Tom Berkle published a statement recently listing eight “main reasons” why they voted against the proposed merger. The full statement was originally sent to Eileen Mooney’s NEWSletter at her request.

Among the reasons for the no-votes: they want to see a CVTE facility as “a self-contained campus with a unique taxation mechanism that is philosophically and economically defensible”; the current proposal would “free up currently underutilized assets”; debt securities; and the “structure and governance of the new eight-city agreement.”

It’s possible that Egremont is an outlier in his strong opposition. After all, when the South Berkshire School Board decided to close South Egremont Community School five years ago, the town sued the school board, although it later settled. But, judging by social media posts, skepticism over the merger also runs deep in Sheffield. Either way, all it takes is for one city to reject the proposal and all of the RSDPB’s work falls through.

Meanwhile, both districts are stepping up their public relations efforts. Southern Berkshire has contracted marketing and communications specialist Cas Londergan of SMT to assist with district messaging. His most recent effort was a press release touting the district’s new technology course offerings, which include “information technology, computer programming, and cybersecurity.”

In February, the Berkshire Hills School Board voted to add a new position: Community Engagement Specialist.

The district continues its quest for a new high school, which received a boost in March when the Massachusetts School Building Authority agreed to consider the project for state funding. Additionally, the district’s three member cities gave the go-ahead this spring for the district to borrow $1.5 million to fund a feasibility and schematic study for the new high school.

Berkshire Hills Regional School District superintendent Peter Dillon. Photo by David Scribner.

Superintendent Peter Dillon said the study would consider two options for a new school: one for the population of Berkshire Hills only and another for a school that could accommodate students from both districts. The district recently sent a Press release on the feasibility study.

Rebuilding Monument has twice been rejected by voters, once in 2013 and again 12 months later. Both price tags were over $50 million. This time around, there is obviously more community support, even in Great Barrington, which effectively vetoed both proposals the first and second time around. The price to be paid eight years later will surely be considerably higher due to inflation, labor shortages and supply chain issues. But if the two districts do in fact merge, it could add up to 6 percentage points to the MSBA reimbursement formula.

Yes, the details are to be worked out by the RSDPB, but please be patient. It took a long time to get there. The state has set up a complicated and comprehensive processofficially known as Chapter 71 Article 14to guide school districts in reviewing mergers and consolidations.

Want to weigh in on the merger proposal? The RSDPB is hosting a pair of community contribution sessions via Zoom on June 28 and 30 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Click here to register for one of the sessions.

About Donald Martin

Check Also

Private equity has been active in manufacturing for years | Local company

Private equity has been active in manufacturing for years, but has become more visible as …