STOCKBRIDGE — Two school districts, eight towns, and many rules and opinions.
That's what the members of the Eight Town School Consolidation Committee are juggling as they explore the possible merger of the Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills Regional school districts.
So, on Tuesday, the group, composed of town and school officials from both districts, voted to form a regional district planning commission charged with tackling the task at hand.
Consolidation committee Chairwoman Nadine Hawver, a Sheffield Select Board member, said the 24-member commission — three from each town — is a necessary first step toward any eventual plan to combine the districts.
"It would be forming a completely new district with fresh ideas, and not one district feeling like they were being absorbed by another district," she said.
The vote was conditioned on a consultation with state and other education officials to make sure this chosen path can't be undone later for lack of proper procedure. The commission will be formed at a later date and ultimately will replace the eight-town committee.
In this far-flung region of South County, both districts have entertained consolidation over the past two decades as each continues to struggle with ailing balance sheets as education costs rise, state aid falls and school enrollment drops.
Town officials have sought a merger in an attempt to control taxes, and while school officials have been less warm to the idea, they acknowledged that a larger population of high school students pools resources, which can improve learning.
The stakes are somewhat higher now — and more complicated. A renovation or reconstruction of the aging Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington is moving closer to the action phase, and school officials say that it can't wait. A merger could take at least three years, as would the completion of a new high school.
Neither Monument nor Mount Everett Regional High School in Sheffield are at capacity.
But the path toward a merger is winding and possibly thorny. The range of potential snags runs from busing students across far South County, union tangles and school funding formulas.
Right now, it's all about the mechanics of who will talk about all this, hiring a facilitator, and where to get funding to do so.
At the group's last meeting, speakers from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools came to explain the various options, and their thoughts.
On Tuesday, questions of process were raised and will be answered by the next meeting, Hawver said. Amid the discussion, a sense of urgency prevailed when some wanted to wait for clarity after one member made the motion that would fashion the new commission.
"We're not speeding," said Jonathan Sylbert, a Monterey Finance Committee member. "We're three years off. This commission needs to move forward, otherwise we can do nothing."
Lucy Prashker, of Alford, said that a commission of this size will benefit from a facilitator. She thinks it should be Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, who made a presentation at the previous meeting.
Koocher told The Eagle that while he isn't yet in the loop on this particular set of circumstances, he responds to requests from school committees. He said several districts in the state have merged successfully, but never has he seen one with so many towns involved.
He suggested that merger talks can be volatile.
"You're looking at Camp David-style negotiations to make this happen," Koocher said. "There are a lot of passionate stakeholders."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.