MUDDYBROOKFIRSTDAY

Students walk through Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School in Great Barrington. Officials are collecting public input on whether to merge the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional school districts.

GREAT BARRINGTON — As enrollment continues to decline in the county’s two most southern school districts, officials are reaching out to the public for input on whether to combine the districts, increase collaboration or do nothing at all.

The Regional School District Planning Board has put together a package of three online surveys geared to three constituencies: community members, school staff and students.

“We want to hear from as many of the stakeholders as possible,” said Lucy Prashker, chair of the planning board.

To fill out the survey, visit rsdpb.org. Responses will be accepted through Oct. 12.

Using the survey results, in addition to enrollment projections and logistical and financial data, the board hopes to make a recommendation next spring to the select boards of the eight towns that make up the Southern Berkshire Regional School District and the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

A report released Sept. 14, by the board’s project manager, Jake Eberwein, paints a grim picture. The combined enrollment from kindergarten through grade 12 at both districts has declined 33 percent in the past two decades — from 2,674 students in 2000 to 1,787 students in 2020. Enrollment is projected to decline by an additional 28 percent — to 1,280 students — by 2030, the report states.

Breaking down those numbers to individual districts, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, which includes the towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, has seen its enrollment drop from 1,602 students in 2000 to 1,149 students in 2021. Enrollment there is projected to decline to 877 students in 2030.

At the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, which is made up of the towns of Alford, Egremont, Monterey, New Marlborough and Sheffield, enrollment has declined from 1,072 students in 2000 to 607 students in 2021. Enrollment is expected to decline to 403 students by 2030.

The report notes that merger talks date back more than 25 years, as both districts long have struggled with rising operations costs, enrollment declines and stagnant state aid.

“Therefore, absent efficiencies gained through regionalization or significant collaboration, future costs of normal inflationary increases in school budgets will either result in increased local assessments, or will necessitate reductions in educational services,” the report states.

The Regional School District Planning Board, formed in early 2020, is made up of three volunteer members from each of the eight towns in the two districts, including a school committee representative from each town. The board meets every four to six weeks. Its research and administrative costs are funded through the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the two districts and each of the eight towns.

Under the authority of the state, the board has as its mandate studying the financial and educational advisability of consolidating the two districts. In the end, the board’s recommendation could fall anywhere along a spectrum of possibilities, from doing nothing, to increased collaboration, to merging the two districts from prekindergarten through grade 12.

Any recommendation will come with a host of logistical matters to be resolved. For instance, if the towns pursue merging the two districts, would school buildings be mothballed, and if so, which ones?

“I can’t predict where we’re going to be in a year or a year-and-a-half from now,” said Prashker, who lives in Alford, “but what I am certain about is that we’re going to take an objective look at the data and do our best to make recommendations based on that data.”

In its push for public input, the board sent out 10,000 flyers to households within the two districts, encouraging participation in the surveys.

The surveys are geared toward community members within the two districts or anyone who has a child attending either district, even if they live elsewhere; students in grades 9 to 12 who attend either Monument Mountain Regional High School or Mount Everett Regional High School, and for alumni who graduated from either high school from 2018 to 2021; and all faculty and staff who work at the two districts.

Felix Carroll can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6391.