NORTH ADAMS - There's a new 77-page report that supports through research, statistics and writing, what's preventing Berkshire County public school students from getting the best educational opportunities.
The report, based of the first of two phases of the Berkshire County Education Task Force Planning Study, specifically reviewed and put into context how decreased enrollment, rising costs, and declining or flat revenues pose challenges to the quality of the education provided by local schools. The report can be read in full or summary by visiting berkshireeducation.org.
Among the trends:
- Enrollment dropped more than 22 percent between the 1999-2000 school year and the 2014-15 academic year compared with the statewide enrollment decline by only 1.7 percent in the same period. "That's the loss of a district the size of Pittsfield," said Eliot Levine, Ph.D., senior research manager for the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute which conducted the study.
- A nearly 11 percent school enrollment loss is projected to take place in the Berkshires by the end of 2025.
- While the commonwealth's overall percentage of students from low-income families in 2015 made up 26.3 percent of the state's total student body, 34 percent of Berkshire County students faced financial hardships that year.
- Nearly 18 percent of the total 2015 population of local public school students received some sort of special education services.
- Costs have increased by 27 percent for local schools over the past decade, while Chapter 70 general aid increased by 23 percent at that time, and county tax levies rose by nearly 50 percent.
- Berkshire County's enrollment decline between the 2004-05 and 2014-15 school years has been accompanied by a reduction in full-time equivalent teachers, from 1,684 to 1,429, as well as a reduction in academic and instructional programs and services, athletic and other extracurricular activities.
Now, more than ever, the Berkshire County Education Task Force members agree that the public needs to know and talk more with them about the issues at hand, and what investments need to be made now to change the futures for the county's young people.
Task force vice chair, William Cameron, Ph.D., said that moving forward, the task force will look at ways other schools, districts and towns in the region, and in similar regions in the nation, are dealing with like issues.
But, Cameron said, "The do nothing approach will describe what the catastrophe will look like if things continue to function as they currently exist."
Levine highlighted some options the task force and their member schools and towns can explore.
"Shared services can save money and there's an interest here ... but there's no clear answer on what's the optimal district size," he said.
Levine noted that there are a lot of variables that can go into planning, from determining priorities and assets to defining leadership and public buy-in to any sort of changes.
He gave examples of how successful regionalized school districts in New York state came with substantial state support in technical assistance and finances, while another effort for bigger districts to absorb smaller districts in Texas actually resulted in decreased quality of education.
Other findings Levine highlighted included that declining student enrollment has led to reduced flexibility in course scheduling; in some cases, this results in students being assigned to a study hall rather than an academic course. It was also found that there is a wide range of average teacher salaries across districts, and that average teacher salaries are lower in Berkshire County than in Massachusetts as a whole.
Levine noted some other common misconceptions about reform and consolidation. He said that regionalization, for example, does not always result in schools closing. He also noted how regionalization doesn't necessarily result in cost savings to districts and towns.
He said that some studies of regionalization suggest that money saved by regionalization should be spent in improving educational quality.
Cameron said improving educational quality is "a civil rights issue for students and families, and is crucial to the economic success of Berkshire County."
The next steps for the Berkshire County Education Task Force Planning Study is to prepare for phase two, which includes applying for planning grant funds this month to identify the scope of services needed and determining how a consultant can explore various models and options that can then be reviewed by the task force members and be shared as educated recommendations to their affiliated cities and towns.
"There are urgent problems to be solved through this process if at all possible," said Cameron.
Levine recommended that community members "get involved with the work of the task force" which will likely, in its next phase, seek community members' input. Local legislators and even Governor Charlie Baker have begun to meet with the task force.
"This group can give important information to help people make an educated decision on what to vote for. That can't just be based on soundbites that people here. This is their investment into their schools," Levine said.