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Consultant says Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire should merge into a single district

Plan calls for Mount Everett High students to attend a new Monument High

Mount Everett school exterior

Under a recommendation by a consultant to an eight-town panel, high school students at Mount Everett Regional Middle and High School in Sheffield would move to a newly renovated or rebuilt Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington. Middle schoolers would stay at the Sheffield campus. 

The Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional school districts should be merged into a single district.

That was the recommendation announced Tuesday by a consultant who, with his team, has conducted two years of research on the best way forward for the neighboring districts.

The plan could save as much as $2.1 million with a cut to administrative and other redundancy, said Jake Eberwein, a longtime educator who is project manager for the 8 Town Regional School Planning Board. The board will meet in public session April 5 to discuss the recommendation.

“This is just the beginning,” said board Chair Lucy Prashker, who reminded those who attended the virtual meeting that there is much more discussion and planning in the board’s future. She encouraged the public to send comments through the board’s website.

The 23-member panel that includes town officials, educators and citizens from each town came together in 2019 to address the economic and educational problem of steadily declining enrollment and level state aid for the rural schools.

Under the plan, grades nine through 12 from both districts would unite at a new or renovated Monument Mountain Regional High School campus in Great Barrington, which is in the early stages of a proposed building project.

The elementary and middle schools in both districts would remain as is. Middle-schoolers in grades six through eight would remain at the Mount Everett Middle and High School building.

Monument Mountain Regional High School

Local officials are working with the state on a proposal to renovate or rebuild Monument Mountain Regional High School, built in 1968.

Some form of collaboration or consolidation has been on the table for around two decades, but the monumental task of executing a merger had long stalled talks.

Crushing school budgets gave towns no choice. Both officials and taxpayers, agitating for economic reform around paying for the schools, pushed for a panel that would do a thorough investigation.

The picture is grim. School funding formulas are complex. One thing is certain — the more students, the more money comes in. Rural areas are losing pupils. It all takes a toll on taxpayers that have to make up the difference, as well as on the physical plants.

“The current school buildings are under capacity, and there are three school buildings that don’t meet the School Building Authority’s highest facilities ratings,” Eberwein said during his detailed presentation.

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Two are Southern Berkshires’ New Marlborough Central School and the Egremont Village School.

The third, Monument, has the lowest rating of the three. It is set to be overhauled, with or without state money, beginning in late 2024 or 2025. The state gave word this month that it likely will foot part the bill for what is loosely estimated at a $100 million upgrade.

This timing gives districts leeway to execute their consolidation plans, Eberwein said. He also later said that a new, right-sized high school with comprehensive programs has the potential to be a significant force for good in an entire community, as it has been in other areas of the county.

Changes in technology and modern learning are factoring in. The schools increasingly want to offer more career-based and vocational learning.

The research team ran three models with different permutations of mergers, one which would have moved some middle schoolers to the other district’s buildings.

Jake Eberwein

Howard "Jake" Eberwein III, shown in 2017.

Eberwein told The Eagle that, while shutting down school buildings does provide substantial savings, buy-in might be hard to find.

“It’s also one of the more controversial things, so our team was weighing how the eight towns would support a process without alienating a particular town or community,” he said.

The team’s report, a link to which is on the board’s website, shows that the districts should get ahead of steering its destiny in a changing landscape.

“What we know is that change is happening in South Berkshire, and we believe that you all have the potential to direct this change rather than simply being impacted by it,” Eberwein told the board.

One graphic in the report shows the problems as they are now, and progress made if districts “come together, share resources, expand opportunities, strengthen your economy, promote a legislative agenda.”

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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