John Hockridge: A united Berkshire front on education
NORTH ADAMS >> The Berkshire County Education Task Force came into existence this summer to make recommendations for positive, long-term improvements that will enable all school districts to provide and sustain quality education in Berkshire County. A dedicated advisory group of 26 current and former school administrators and educators, school committee members, town administrators and prominent local business leaders, the task force operates with support from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC).
"It is very exciting to see all these entities working toward a common goal," said Andrea Wadsworth, Lee school chairperson. "What is good for Williamstown, could be just as beneficial for Sheffield. It's not about location, it's about collaboration and process.
With a nod to Bob Dylan, "the times they are a changin'" and the Berkshire County Education Task Force is trying to meet those changes. In Berkshire County, public school districts are faced with:
* A general historical decline in student enrollment that is expected to continue;
*Rising operational costs (ie. benefits, special education, technology);
*Declining/flat revenues leading to additional financial burden to towns and municipalities;
* Reductions in the diversity and range of educational programs available to students.
What will the task force do to address these issues? It will provide well-researched options related to historical and future K-12 educational configurations in Berkshire County. This will equip stakeholders to clearly understand, consider, debate, support/reject, and potentially implement all or some of the proposed recommendations. Without this research, we are left with little more than assumptions and uninformed speculation.
Absent the task force effort, many districts and municipalities in Berkshire County will face annual budget crises resulting in programmatic cuts that negatively affect the quality of education we offer in our schools. Voters will suffer increasing anxiety over the rising costs of educating their children.
The budget cuts we all face may provide short-term solutions but do not address the long-range challenges. This task force hopes to articulate a clear direction that is intentional and focused on quality, sustainable K-12 education.
Now, more than ever, we need a cohesive message regarding the state of public education in Berkshire County. Given demographic and economic shifts, we have no margin of error when branding our county as a place to live, raise a family, educate, work, and locate a business. Individuals and families living in the Berkshires and those who work at or own businesses need to be assured that our educational system is high quality and a regional priority.
An economic issue
Education serves as a key variable in community well-being, from both workforce development and standard of life perspectives. If we commit to this goal, we will attract and retain residents, stimulate new businesses, and draw in tourists, improving the vitality of our region and protecting our own self-interests.
Across the county, individual districts and towns, as well as other groups of districts, have been and are working to solve similar issues. Much work and effort has been done by many in south county over the past year and a half, and the Southern Berkshire Shared Services Project initiative will help us all in finding solutions for the sustainability of a quality education for our youth throughout the county.
Many months of work by the Central Berkshire Regional School Committee and former Supt. Dr. William Cameron also provided the foundation from which the task force evolved. In north county, Williamstown and Lanesborough have already combined with Mt. Greylock to share services and trim costs. We can look to all of these efforts to guide our work.
The task force will recommend solutions that address the need to:
* Improve access, diversity, breadth and quality of educational programs for children county-wide so they are fully prepared for college, career and a life here in the Berkshires;
* Create economies of scale (financial savings) through new collaborations, technologies, partnerships, and regional agreements between towns/cities and districts;
* Advance new investments in collaborative solutions, such as expanded pre-K programming, or special education services that improve educational services and opportunities for children county-wide;
* Maintain and honor the unique identity of each Berkshire community, ensuring citizens remain fully connected and engaged with their schools;
* Reflect age appropriate social and learning practices, such as transportation/travel time and the number of school/grade transitions.
With the support of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, a comprehensive first stage data set has been assembled that includes enrollment, financial, choice, and personnel markers. This data includes historical, current and projected trends.
The Berkshire County Education Task Force is now in the process of securing funding for project researchers to work on developing specific models. These models will include additional "tiers" of advancing collaborative and shared services solutions, including cooperative purchasing, transportation, and shared special education programming; advancing formal partnerships between geographically proximal districts; and advancing reorganization of the entire county into fewer school districts.
We welcome public engagement in this important effort and offer feedback along the way. All meetings are open to the public, with our meeting dates, agendas and minutes posted on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/BCETF/
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