Berkshire schools: Doing nothing is not an option

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LENOX - In case you missed it: The Berkshire County Education Task Force, whose 30 dedicated, diligent members have been meeting monthly since two summers ago, came out last month with a startling cure for the financial struggles confronting most of the county's 16 school districts.

The group includes administrators, school committee members, town administrators and a prominent business executive, Brian Fairbank, of Jiminy Peak fame.

They voted informally, 23-1, to explore over the next 10 years the creation of one countywide, 15,000-student district in response to decreasing enrollments and worsening budget woes. The task force indicated its idea could yield up to $34 million a year in reduced administrative and transportation costs, if one large or three medium-sized districts were created.

The drop in student enrollment, as cited by the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts, is stark — a loss of 22 percent from 2000 to 2015, and a further decline of 11 percent projected by 2025.

The recommendation included caveats aplenty: John Hockridge, the task force chairman who also chairs the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, acknowledged the likelihood of "immediate pushback" since the details remain a work in progress.

Task force member Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of the countywide economic strategic alliance 1Berkshire, called the recommendation "an aspiration a possible outcome."

Jason "Jake" McCandless, superintendent of the fiscally challenged Pittsfield school district, described a sweeping revamp of the county's districts as challenging, to say the least.

There was disagreement among task force members on whether to pursue the single jumbo district or three districts, north, central and south. Former Central Berkshire Superintendent William Cameron supported one 946 square-mile district as the only option, while Butler called that concept "intimidating to think about." Fairbank questioned how one district could be achieved.

The complications are daunting — how school choice would be handled, how education taxes would be assessed in 32 Berkshire communities and whether the state's education department would support the idea.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle would be buy-in from the public, given the burning desire for local control and autonomy that many, perhaps most, residents insist upon for their schools. Ultimately, though, it comes down to what's best for the kids.

Some advocates point out that a countywide, 15,000-student district would be workable — the city of Lowell has one district with a comparable headcount. But Lowell is a fairly compact city, while Berkshire County sprawls 58 miles from north to south and 22 miles from east to west, with acute geographical challenges, especially in winter weather.

It didn't take long for dissension to morph into denunciation. Richard Dohoney, member of the Berkshire Hills School Committee and a prominent attorney, wants the district covering Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge to leave the education task force.

"I'm tired of being a nice guy," he told Berkshire Hills committee members several weeks ago, acknowledging the good intentions of the task force but alleging that it's driven by political and business motives. He called the informal vote for one countywide district "a wild goose chase."

But Hockridge, who's also on the North Adams School Committee, has warned that many county schools "are not financially sustainable right now." A dire but accurate warning, given the recent, painful elementary school closing in Cheshire.

So, as school bells ring over the next two weeks and school committees reconvene, the task force's recommendation deserves careful, thorough discussion without emotional political polemics.

Stephen Bannon, the Berkshire Hills committee chairman, has voiced a preference for three districts countywide, while Peter Dillon, the superintendent of the Berkshire Hills district, has cautioned that as more details emerge, the more complicated it becomes.

To avoid consigning the task force's work to the dustbin where too many studies end up, here's one vote for a four-district approach: North (all schools north of Pittsfield); Central (Pittsfield and Central Berkshire); South (Berkshire Hills, Southern Berkshire and the Otis-Sandisfield Farmington River district) and Lee-Lenox, where joint Town Hall administrative leadership took effect on July 1.

It's worth considering, since doing nothing is not an option.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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