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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Berkshire Hills, Southern Berkshire school district merger proposal deserves a serious look

Should the two public school districts serving eight South County towns join forces? The consultant who has crunched the numbers and weighed the options over the last two years says the answer to that question should be yes.

Talks of a possible merger between Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire have been circling for years, but a recent report is the most concrete step yet toward making it a reality. Among several models analyzed, the report recommends sending all high-schoolers across the two districts to a new or renovated Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington. Under this plan, nothing would change for middle-schoolers or elementary school students in either district; Mount Everett Regional School in Sheffield would remain open to students in sixth through eighth grades.

This consolidation, according to the report, would significantly cut administrative redundancy across both districts and could save as much as $2.1 million annually. That’s exactly the sort of cost efficiency that stakeholders in both districts were seeking when they put together the 8 Town Regional School Planning Board.

As we’ve written in this space before, we are broadly in favor of embracing regionalization as a way for Berkshire communities to balance high-quality services for residents with sustainable municipal budgets. That’s particularly relevant for rural and underserved corners of the county, especially when it comes to schooling. State funding formulas often give the short end of the stick to rural districts as they grapple with the one-two punch of declining enrollment and increasing costs, and local taxpayers feel that squeeze.

It is good to see a real, thought-out plan on the table to systematically address these issues in South County. This proposal deserves a serious look considering the challenges facing each district. Jake Eberwein, the regional school board’s project manager, succinctly framed the need to think big in order to do best by the region’s schools: “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.”

A merger of this sort would certainly be a big step, but continuing the status quo is its own choice with its own consequences for districts facing similar struggles, like under-capacity school buildings and preventively high costs to renovate or replace outdated facilities. Take, for example, the difficulties facing Berkshire Hills in pursuing a long overdue plan to renovate or rebuild Monument Mountain Regional High School.

This is not to dismiss the real challenges that can come with school districts mergers, especially when regionalizing across a large area. The report’s recommendation is merely a firm starting block and still leaves much to assess. Transportation immediately comes to mind, considering the bus routes that would bring high schoolers who reside in the southern parts of Sheffield or New Marlborough to and from Monument Mountain.

Any plan going forward must address these and other real concerns that might be held by South County families, and seriously weigh them against the educational and fiscal benefits we would hope to see from a merger between Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills. As with any school regionalization talks, parochialism has the potential to rear its ugly head here. Avoid this toxic trap. There are thoughtful critiques, and then there is knee-jerk divisiveness; a productive conversation will require separating the wheat from the chaff. Inform, don’t inflame. Your perspective is valuable, and so are those of your neighbors in the region, from students and parents to educators and officials.

This is a chance for these districts to meet their challenges with a clear-eyed assessment of how to best position an entire region’s education infrastructure for the future. That’s a chance they shouldn’t pass up, and we look forward to hearing that conversation. If you want your voice heard on the matter, the 8 Town Regional School Planning Board’s public session slated for Tuesday would be a great place to start.

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