Berkshire Hills school officials take formal path for Monument, Mount Everett merger talks

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GREAT BARRINGTON — For years, residents and town officials have suggested that two local high schools merge to save money and expand programs.

Given the projected population decline in Berkshire County, why not consolidate Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington and Mount Everett Regional High School in Sheffield?

So far, nothing has come of it.

But with the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee currently drafting a plan to renovate or rebuild Monument, the topic has returned to the fore.

The School Committee last week decided unanimously to send a letter to the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee asking if all its member towns wanted to form a board to study a possible merger.

"The plans for the renovation are going forward no matter what," said School Committee member Richard Dohoney, who made a motion to reach out to the neighboring district. "So it always seems to generate a lot of discussion around [merging]."

Two members of the committee were absent, and one recused himself because he is a teacher in the Southern Berkshire district.

Merger discussions have become commonplace in a county where population is declining and most schools are under capacity.

Consolidation can save and generate more government money that will flow to students under one roof. This helps expand programs and potentially keep taxes down. But mergers can also create longer travel time for students, increase transportation costs, cut jobs and rattle communities with a long-held attachment to a school.

A Pittsfield Public Schools official said last year that current and projected population declines are making both finances and breadth of programming unsustainable in many districts.

"This should be a conversation that every community in the Berkshires is having," said Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless.

Dohoney said that the state has a formal process when considering a merger, and that it begins with forming a board composed of both school committees and representing all the member towns.

This letter asks that the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee consider the request at its next meeting, and return a written response by July 31.

"We just thought it's better to go through the actual formal process, and if people don't want to do that, that's fine," Dohoney told The Eagle. "It's better than everyone just shouting over each other. This will foster a good, open and fair conversation."

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There has been a bit of shouting about consolidation in recent years, especially in Great Barrington, whose voters in 2013 and 2014 shot down plans to renovate the aging Monument. And many residents remain concerned about building a new school when the existing school is under capacity amid projected population declines.

Residents said merging the high schools would, at the very least, ease some tax pain of what was then going to be a $28 million project after a $23.2 million state reimbursement. Now costs will be higher for a project that will likely begin in 2023.

But Dohoney said merging is also about expanding offerings to students.

"At the high school, it can really affect the quality and diversity of programming," he said, noting that Monument is pivoting to expand its career and vocational focus.

While both high schools have seen a decline in enrollment in the last five years, the numbers do sometimes inch back up.

Enrollment declines

In 2014, Mount Everett had 223 students in Grades 9 through 12, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That dropped to 194 in 2016, and climbed back up to 202 in 2018.

While the numbers can change somewhat between now and the fall, Mount Everett is set to have 216 students in the coming school year, said Beth Regulbuto, superintendent of the Southern Berkshire district, which draws students from Sheffield, New Marlborough, Egremont, Monterey and Alford. Mount Everett graduated 41 students this month.

Monument High had 552 students in 2015, with a dip down to 523 in 2018, and 530 last year.

Enrollment at Monument High will likely be around 530 in the coming year. The school also draws students from Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, and graduated 126 students this month.

Jane Burke, the chairwoman of the Southern Berkshire School Committee, said she didn't want to comment about the letter until it had been discussed by the committee. Regulbuto also declined to comment on the issue.

Dohoney acknowledged that more students means more state money. But he said the main impulse behind the idea of a merger is to create a thriving high school on many fronts, including sports, given more projected declines in local populations.

"For a diversity of sports teams, you need kids on the field," he said.

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


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