Exploring options for Berkshire schools

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That the Berkshire County Education Task Force even exists is a sign of progress. It is a tacit acknowledgment that Berkshire communities need to work together to confront educational issues - along with essentially every issue that confronts the county.

The task force, which consists of 27 members from all over the Berkshires, recently completed its assessment of county schools, which is the first phase of its study of local education. It delivered a progress report to the North Adams City Council last week (Eagle, November 27).

While the task force may have felt a sense of obligation to offer maintaining the status quo as an option for residents fearful of change, that plainly is not a real choice. The numbers gathered in a study by the Donahue Institute at UMass. are sobering - a 22 percent drop in Berkshire public school enrollment over the last 15 years, a 27 percent rise in expenditures over the last 10 years, and stagnant revenue. A change in course is a necessity, not an option.

The task force, which can only offer recommendations, not impose them, is looking at options that include regionalizing some school districts or even a super-regionalization that combines Berkshire public schools into three or fewer districts. While the study indicates that regionalization is not always a panacea, it should not be dismissed out of hand by skeptical residents. The money saved, for example, could be used to pay for the foreign language and arts programs that are often first to go on the chopping block.

Sharing services is a step that can be taken in lieu of regionalization or as a cautious move toward it. It is unfortunate that an effort by the Lenox Public Schools and the Lee-Tyringham School Union to create a joint superintendency has fallen apart, as the pending departure of Lee-Tyringham Superintendent Al Skrocki offered a rare opportunity. The shared superintendency would have provided a savings for taxpayers and set an example for other Berkshire school districts.

Task force member Howard Eberwein III, a dean at MCLA, noted a "disconnect" between the construction philosophy of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) and the data and needs of the Berkshires. The new Taconic High School, while not formally a regional school, should, because of its vocational focus, attract students from around the region, but Berkshire communities should consider a regional approach in building schools and the MSBA should encourage that approach in considering funding for applications.

Generally speaking, change is necessary and inevitable, and we look forward to the task force's recommendations as the process unfolds.


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