Berkshire Hills, Richmond school district merger talks continue

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The Berkshire Hills Regional School District and the Richmond Consolidated School are moving ahead with delicate discussions about a partial or full merger on a timetable aiming for a possible decision this fall.

During a joint videoconference on Monday by the Berkshire Hills and the Richmond school committees, consultant Karen Fierst outlined a series of proposed options and scenarios.

The ambitious goal she outlined suggests that by November, the Berkshire Hills and Richmond committees might agree on a relationship that could take effect for the 2021-22 school year.

Working under a $45,000 state grant, Fierst acknowledged that "a whole landscape" of options for Richmond's pre-K through eighth grade school should be on the table.

If Richmond decides to go its own way rather than merge in some fashion with Berkshire Hills, she explained, then its school committee would proceed separately with another source of funding.

A partial merger would involve a formal arrangement that would funnel Richmond's eighth-grade graduates into Monument Mountain High, where most of them go currently. A full merger between the Berkshire Hills district — currently serving Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge — and Richmond would encompass that town's entire school pre-K through eighth-grade enrollment, currently 181 students.

Other options for the town include maintaining or restoring its membership in the Shaker Mountain School Union, which has also included Hancock and New Ashford, forming its own, independent school district or exploring a possible relationship with the Lenox School District.

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Fierst suggested that it's essential to explore all the alternatives in order to reach a "healthy agreement."

"We want to be sure that we end up and land on a good, solid future for everybody involved on behalf of the students," said Dewey Wyatt, chairman of the Richmond School Committee.

Whatever the next step turns out to be, Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon said, more funding will be needed to achieve an agreement between Richmond and any potential partner. Dillon is also superintendent for the Richmond school under a shared services agreement that is likely to be extended for one year through June 2021, while Hancock and New Ashford seek other arrangements.

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Fierst unveiled a phased timetable for discussions of options and financial arrangements over the next six weeks. Then, after Richmond chooses its path forward and selects its preferred option, negotiations to explore desirable solutions would move ahead through the summer.

Lastly in October and November, details of the final plan would be unveiled for the Richmond community, subject to revisions leading to an "optimal transition," Fierst said.

"I think it looks good for now," Wyatt said, referring to the timetable and scenario.

"This is a grand puzzle, and we're looking at all the pieces and turning them over to unpack all the different parts of this complex challenge," Fierst explained.

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Richmond Selectman Neal Pilson questioned the extent and nature of any contacts with the Lenox school district. Wyatt responded that he had received an email acknowledging potential interest from Lenox, but he suggested focusing on Berkshire Hills "before just jumping and moving somewhere else."

Among critical factors impacting the discussions, Dillon and Pilson agreed on a close look at the potential impact of any agreement with Berkshire Hills on faculty and staff in that district as well as on the Richmond school.

Finances, curriculum and the autonomy of Richmond Consolidated also are on the list for intense consideration.

"We need an aggressive timeline to move things forward," Dillon said.

He urged biweekly meetings. Discussions between the two school committees will resume at a 6 p.m. session on May 26.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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