GREAT BARRINGTON — Teens from eight South County towns could attend the same high school in several years, if all the towns agree to it.
The 8-Town Regional School District Planning Board voted 16-6 Tuesday to begin a journey that could consolidate the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional schools into one kindergarten through Grade 12 district, and send all students in grades 9 through 12 to a newly built Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington.
Under this plan, Mount Everett Regional Middle and High School in Sheffield would continue to serve students only in grades 6 through 8 and both elementary schools would remain unchanged.
If after further analysis the board agrees to hammer out a new regional schools agreement, a majority of voters in all eight towns in both districts would have to agree at annual town meetings.
Board Chair Lucy Prashker said the vote was an important step towards a formal recommendation to the towns. And she later cautioned that Tuesday’s vote is a preliminary step toward that agreement, with questions to be worked out, including student transportation. The vote should not be taken as a recommendation to the Select Boards of all eight towns, she said.
“This is not a binding vote,” Prashker said. “It was a vote to select the model for further development and design.”
A meeting to dive deeper into details is scheduled for May 9.
Not everyone wants to see Mount Everett’s high school fuse with Monument.
“I feel like the opinion of our research team has become more important than a bigger, more creative view,” said board member Jane Burke, chair of Southern Berkshire’s School Committee and a longtime educator, speaking to the board.
The 23-member board convened in 2020 and received grant funding for a facilitator and a consultant. The report it commissioned was released last month with a number of merger models, one of which was that chosen Tuesday.
Burke is concerned about “the dismissal of Mount Everett as a place where kids can learn … and the assumption that everything has to be on the same campus.”
She wanted the vote postponed, something the board voted against. Burke suggested the timeline is being sped up to accommodate design plans in motion for a renovation or rebuild of Monument High. Those plans have to account for projected student population numbers.
Board member Tara White, a New Marlborough Select Board member, said she doesn’t see how great programs and education at Mount Everett would be lost by merging, as some on the board have said.
“I think that all it would do is give more kids more opportunities,” she said, pointing to the initial reason the districts have considered merging for nearly two decades.
“The operational costs are continuing to go up and they’re only going to continue to go up,” White added, noting declining enrollment. “The towns can’t afford it. They cannot continue with this uphill climb. It’s just not sustainable … the residents and people are going to stand up and say, ‘We can’t do this anymore, it’s just too expensive.’”