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Clarence Fanto: A fast start out of the gate for a South County school district merger plan

South Egremont School exterior

The South Egremont School, above, and New Marlborough Central School both fall short of meeting the state's highest standards, according to a report that recommends merging the Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills regional school districts. The plan recommends no changes for the elementary grades.

LENOX — Can two school districts serving eight South County towns function better together or separately?

The answer to that question is explored, with all its pros and cons, in a remarkably thorough and readable report issued this week by the 8 Town Regional District Planning Board.

The advisory group’s study written by consultant and project manager Jake Eberwein, one of the county’s most respected veteran educators, is a crucial first step toward potential regionalization of the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire school districts.

Some may view the mission as improbable, if not impossible. However, with enrollments declining and the tax burden for the eight towns escalating, the report shines a bright light on a solution that could be a trailblazer for the county and the state.

The schools in the two districts are under-capacity and three buildings don’t meet the state’s highest standards — Monument Mountain High and the village elementary schools in Egremont and New Marlborough.

As reported earlier this week by The Eagle’s Heather Bellow, the bottom line finding of the study reflecting two years of work by 23 town officials, educators and citizens from all eight communities is this:

Students in grades 9-12 attending Mount Everett Regional High in Sheffield would move to a rejuvenated or rebuilt Monument Mountain Regional High in Great Barrington, a project still in its early stages. But the elementary and middle schools in the two districts would continue to serve the lower grades with no changes.

Settling on this recommended path forward would require a state green light and approval by voters in Alford, Egremont, Great Barrington, Monterey, New Marlborough, Sheffield, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge after extensive public review and hearings.

A survey of 1,200 residents, students and staff in the two districts released in January offered encouragement for a possible consolidation, although plenty of concerns also were voiced about an array of scenarios being explored.

“A key takeaway from the surveys is that there is a remarkable degree of openness to the possibilities in the models under construction,” said Lucy Prashker, chair of the 8 Town Regional School District Planning Board.

Eberwein, a former superintendent of schools in Pittsfield and Lee, and his group described multiple approaches to a consolidation or merger of the South County districts before settling on the recommendation for a shared regional high school, while maintaining the current setup for the lower grades.

The key conclusion: “Whether through full regionalization or expanded shared services (collaboration) there is great benefit of working together in addressing the challenges of shrinking enrollment and strained resources in ensuring that academic programs and student services are continued and, possibly, enhanced.”

The stakes are high, the study emphasized: “The strength of the local school districts in providing breadth of curriculum and academic/enrichment opportunities, equitable access, and positive outcomes for students are foundational to community development. The decision to live, to work, to relocate, to set up a business ... is highly associated with the quality (both real and perceived) of the schools.”

Why is there an urgent need to explore a regional solution? “It’s critical then that schools are efficiently operated in order to maximize resources available for direct student services and/or to manage the fiscal liability to the towns.”

Here’s a brief summary of some of the pluses, though the report itself merits a close look:

• Savings of up to $2.1 million can be achieved by consolidating central office administration and operations, aligning teaching and learning, and sharing specialized staffing for special education, English language learners, curriculum and alternative education.

• Programming can be expanded for high school students by partnering to construct a state-of-the-art high school at Monument in Great Barrington.

• The expected savings can be reinvested in expanded early childhood programs, out-of-school experiences, more enrichment programing in arts, STEM and pre-vocational, more Advanced Placement and early college/dual enrollment courses, and alternative learning for at-risk students.

• Elementary and middle schools (K-8) remain in their home schools, closely linked to town identity and culture.

• A shared vision and collective culture can be built in an eight-town community for the 700-plus grade 9-12 students to be educated in one new high school.

Among the key drawbacks:

• The impact on staffing to achieve the savings would result in the loss of nearly 15 to 17 full-time positions in central office/administration, teaching and other areas.

• The challenges of combining two K-12 regions are formidable, requiring coordinated, groundbreaking work.

• Slightly larger classes of 20 to 22 students will be needed.

• Access to some after-school activities, particularly sports, may be limited by combining high schools, but some sports such as lacrosse could be expanded.

• Financing for a new high school and existing school debt may be viewed negatively.

• Current high school staff from the Southern Berkshire district in Sheffield would be relocated to the new school in Great Barrington.

In his summation, Eberwein wrote: Our team also recognizes the significant barriers associated with mergers and regionalization such as legal and regulatory hoops, emotional challenges related to identity and culture, and potential loss of local control. Yet it holds significant promise. Regardless, our team recognizes, and emphasizes, that the ultimate decision will be made by YOU (the Regional School District Planning Board and the towns/citizens).”

My take: While the study is an encouraging start, there’s a long and winding road ahead, with the timing of the final destination impossible to map right now. But the benefits of coming together outweigh the downsides, by many miles.

Next Saturday: A look at the challenges and the timeline for possible regionalization.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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