Berkshire County Education Task Force to suggest radical reorganization
DALTON — After two years studying the struggles of local schools, the Berkshire County Education Task Force is poised to recommend that all county schools fold into one countywide district over the next 10 years, a sweeping move that could save the county as much as $34 million each year.
Yet the informal discussion and straw poll results of Saturday's meeting came with the strong message that creating a single district of what is now 15,000 students is an ultimate aspiration - that an intricate road map with various strategies for such a monumental task will be in the works for some time.
And committee members did not want what was mostly a firm consensus to incite panic among parents and educators, and said they wanted to be clear that more clarification is needed, and that the intent is not to shut down schools or slash jobs.
Chairman John Hockridge, a North Adams school official and chairman of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees cautioned that the idea is conceptual, and the committee will pick its way through the nitty-gritty — with the ongoing help of its consultant — of how to implement the countywide shift.
"There could be immediate push-back," Hockridge said. "We have to be sure our message is clear."
But Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, said the committee's tilt toward one district — among those present — is an "aspiration," the discussion of which "begins to condition people's thinking as a possible outcome."
Nevertheless, it was a bold move for a committee composed of past and current educators, superintendents, local officials, business and higher education leaders, and others. It comes after monthly meetings and community outreach since 2015, and the help of consultants.
Education consultant Karla Brooks Baehr of District Management Group — through state funding — outlined scenarios that aim to get a handle on declining enrollments that harm education quality and school funding. State funding is based mostly on student headcounts.
And all of this threatens the region's economic development, according to an earlier report to the committee from the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute. The report said enrollment decline will continue as the county's population keeps falling. Between 2000 and 2015, Berkshire schools saw a 22 percent drop in students. The institute projects another 11 percent loss of students between 2015 and 2025, whittling student populations down to 14,000.
With the stated goals of giving students more equal access to good education and support, and to keep school costs manageable for taxpayers, the committee pondered scenarios ranging from creating three modified supervisory unions in the county or three regional school districts. Another option is doing nothing and coming up with new ways to share services and staff.
"It's challenging whether you're dealing with three smaller regions or one large region," said Jason "Jake" McCandless, superintendent of Pittsfield Schools, speaking to what it would take to reorganize schools in the county's 32 communities.
And each of the options came with its impact on costs in a county that spends a total of $250 million every year for its schools. The creation of either three regional districts or one district brings the maximum savings, up to $34 million in what would mostly be administrative and transportation costs.
A link to the report can be found at the Task Force's website, http://www.berkshireeducation.org/about.html
While it might be a solid plan on paper, committee members talked about the charged issue of community pride and control that could shoot the recommendation down before lift-off.
"The 32 communities that comprise Berkshire County have respect for this notion of local control, even if what you're controlling isn't the best thing for the community you control," McCandless said. "In the 1700s, communities shed blood for it. If that weren't a real issue I think we would have done this 20 or 30 years ago."
Stephen Bannon, a long-time Great Barrington town and Berkshire Hills Regional School District official said he thought three districts might be less troublesome in terms of local control.
"You would still have a countywide approach with three districts," he said.
But Douglas McNally, former principal of Taconic High School, said in terms of community support or push-back, it won't necessarily be easier to sell three than one.
"If our ultimate goal is one, [then] state it," he said.
And William Cameron, former superintendent of Central Berkshire Regional School District said setting up three districts could be chock full of hassles given all the tax assessments to towns, and other things that would have to change if the goal is to get to one district.
"Having a single district gives us the greatest flexibility if the population [continues] to decline," he added. "The only [option] it seems to me that cuts the Gordian Knot is [one district]."
"One district is intimidating to think about," Butler said, noting that there aren't just population drops but also shifts as people move around and use school choice, where students attend schools out of their own district. He said anything less than one district might not be a "long-term product that can last for decades."
And it was the same around the table: Support for one district, but head-scratching at the complexity of the idea.
"It's a 946-square-mile district," said Robert Putnam, interim superintendent at Adams-Cheshire Regional School District. "While I support it, that's a challenge."
McNally made it clear that the plan does not involve busing students to far-flung schools.
"A kindergartner isn't going to be put on a bus in Sheffield and end up in Pittsfield," he said.
Other possible bumps
"If we vote on one district, how do we get there?" said Brian Fairbank, whose company The Fairbank Group manages resorts like Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort. Fairbank has been key to raising money for the task force's work.
Collective bargaining with unions was raised as one complication, with some members wondering how pay scales would be determined across such a large school landscape.
But McNally tried to shoot that worry down. "15,000 [students] is a moderate-size district," he said. "Isn't it easier to negotiate one [union] contract rather than 32?"
Jake Eberwein, a dean at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and a former Pittsfield Schools superintendent said it would all take "years of transition" to adjust. It won't be easy, he said, and noted there would have to be at least some administrators situated around the county.
"I agree with the aspiration, but it's the implementation I'm having trouble with," Hockridge said. "But having superintendents in the room ... gives me confidence that [one district] might work."
What is still unclear, according to Hockridge, is the effect of a move to one district on school choice, and the $5,000 that follows the student to another district, removing it from the student's own district.
The program is the source of controversy, since on the one hand it removes money from one district while giving it to another at a rate far below the true cost to educate one student. Pittsfield Schools, for example, sent $2.8 million to other districts in 2017 and received only $593,000 from school choice students. In the same year Berkshire Hills, by comparison, received $1.2 million and sent out $671,000.
Brooks Baehr's report said 10 percent of Berkshire County students use the state program - more than five times the state average - and that the program likely will not go away.
The financial implications of that state-imposed $5,000 are still unclear, Hockridge later told The Eagle.
Calls to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education were not returned Monday to clarify this.
But what is clear is while currently districts are not responsible for busing choice students, they would be under one regional district, the study said. And because regional districts get state reimbursement for transportation money, total busing costs would drop.
Hockridge told The Eagle that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education supports the work of the task force, and that Brooks Baehr is in direct communication with the agency.
But Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees said the state might not be agreeable on the school assessment and accountability front.
"DESE might get involved - it has it's own agenda," he said.
Brooks Baehr, a former deputy commissioner of the agency and a former Lowell Public Schools superintendent — a district with about 14,000 students — said it wasn't the day to actually make the recommendation, since there were still so many questions.
And there were widespread concerns about fallout.
"While [one district] is the optimal option, [it] politically may stop the process in its tracks ... paralyzed by parochial foot-dragging," said Michael Wise, a Great Barrington town official.
Brooks Baehr said people would see the idea in their own unique way. "It's like a Rorschach test — people put into it their own picture, good or bad."
Carl Stewart, chairman of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District said the language used to present the idea to the public is critical.
"If it seems like the work of a think tank, it won't go over well," he said.
Yet by the end, courage had been stoked.
"If we're scared to put our feet in the water, what does that say to people who are looking to us to make a decision?" said Regina DiLego, chairwoman of the Lanesborough School Committee.
Bannon said the real test is taking the idea back to town boards and school committees before launching it, "if you want to really put something behind this."
Putnam said one district is the best way to solve the county's school woes, and McNally said it is the best way to serve students.
"This is what's best for the kids," McNally said.
And all around the table, they had surprised themselves.
"I never thought we'd go this way," Fairbank said.
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871
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