Potential unified school district still a prime topic for county education task force

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DALTON — A Berkshire County group is ramping up its efforts to improve the quality of education in local schools as enrollment continues to decline.

The Berkshire County Education Task Force will reconvene in a public meeting at 9 a.m. Saturday in the Nessacus Regional Middle School library. Members are expected to provide updates on the group's new project manager, discuss the results of a Jan. 15 meeting with state education officials, and discuss its funding strategies and proposals for finding new grants and a prospective grant writer.

The task force, an ad hoc advisory group made up of educators, consultants and other stakeholders, has committed to researching and devising solutions for closing gaps in equity and quality across local public school districts. The group was formed in July 2015.

"Access to rigorous and enriching courses, activities, academic and social supports have declined dramatically over the past decade for many students," according to a Sept. 16, 2017, report published during the group's first phase of work.

The group has found that some schools offer fewer class sections and have limited student services because of low enrollment and budget constraints.

"We want to improve over time what's available to young people in the county," said Cynthia "Cindy" Farr Brown, project manager for the task force. "How that happens and what ways there are to address this while having a declining population is the other piece of the task force work."

The group has found that there are three key issues that local residents will support: giving all students more access to high-quality career development pathways, elective courses and academic enrichment programs and experiences; giving students the guidance and support services needed to be successful; and giving taxpayers countywide a more equitable and sustainable way of funding these programs for students.

But the group has found that Berkshire County towns disagree on how this should be done.

The task force has proposed several possible solutions, including a leading recommendation to manage programs and operations through a unified district instead of the 17 public school districts that are in operation.

Consolidating could mean that districts share one hub for coordinating bus routes and planning transportation costs, or it could mean not having to pay for a student to go out of district for special education services or ensuring all high school students could access the same number of Advanced Placement courses.

When group members traveled to the towns in 2017 and 2018 to share their proposal, they were met with mixed reactions ranging from enthusiastic interest to outright disdain. This kind of move, while researched in places like Franklin and Barnstable counties, never has been implemented in Massachusetts.

But that's not stopping the task force from considering it.

"We're not about closing schools. We're not about laying off staff. We're not about destroying communities," said task force Chairman William "Bill" Cameron, a retired administrator who served Central Berkshire Regional School District and Pittsfield Public Schools. "We are looking for ways of making the county education system the best it can be.

"People think that we're not cognizant of local, town-specific needs, but that's not true. There's a countywide problem and there's countywide solution."

The task force held a daylong meeting at Berkshire Community College in December, and 17 members reconvened at another meeting last month to plot their next steps.

During the January meeting, Cameron posed three crucial questions to his fellow members: "What is it that a single district could do to enhance the programming countywide? What could be available under a single district arrangement? How do we convince people this is a primary concern that they ought to have, not just in this section of the county, but countywide?"

What's next?

Brown, the former vice president of academic affairs for the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, is now in charge of keeping the task force on task.

Initially, the group's work was funded by local nonprofits, banks and districts, and in recent years received state money for research and the publication of its reports. For this current fiscal year, the commonwealth has provided the task force with $50,000, managed through the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

Through this allocation, the commission hired Brown as project manager for the task force in January. Since her departure from the college last June, Brown has served as an independent consultant, most recently contracting as a senior adviser for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. This nonbenefited role as project manager for the task force includes compensation at a rate of $75 per hour, not to exceed $35,000, through June 30.

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Brown has suggested that the group refocus its work with a Berkshire County Education Task Force "2.0" mission "committed to leading our region towards the goal of a single Berkshire school district."

The task force remains focused on expanding its research and taking inventory on how every dollar is spent in all districts, and whether it adds up to a high-quality and meaningful experience for students who are finding successful outcomes.

"I think there's plenty to do," Brown said.

First on her list is to get the group's members to identify and agree upon goals to be accomplished this spring, which likely will be outlined in more detail at Saturday's meeting.

If the group is going to put forward any compelling proposals or seek further funding for its work, she said, it will have to do it quickly and thoroughly, as the new municipal and state budgeting season soon begins.

In addition to an update from Brown, Saturday's meeting also will include a report on a Jan. 15 meeting between a group of task force delegates and Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and other education department associates.

"I think they're very supportive of what we're doing," Cameron told The Eagle.

He said he sees the state agency as a resource for providing the task force with current school data on existing program offerings and enrollment in Berkshire County schools, which is not so easy to come by when dealing with 17 districts and dozens of schools.

"The problem here is, everything is decentralized," Cameron said. "There isn't a very systematic way of keeping track of these things."

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also relies on schools and districts to accurately report their data to the agency in a timely fashion.

Planning for the future

Ultimately, the task force will have to plan its actions not only for the present, but for how its proposals might make an impact five, 10, or even 20 years from now.

Andrea Wadsworth, who has served as vice chairwoman of the task force since Carrie Greene submitted her resignation in December, has multiple roles within the Lee school community.

"There's a lot of work here," she said about the detailing of a single-district plan. "As a school committee member, I wonder what happens with local control [of schools]. And as a school business administrator, what does that mean for me? Am I going to lose my job?"

Answers to those questions, Wadsworth said, "are part of what I hope, through this spring's work, will be revealed."

Over the course of the three-hour meeting in January, one thing the group agreed upon was the need to ensure that there is fair and balanced representation at the task force table. Noticeably missing at this meeting were administrators and school committee members from the county's two urban districts, Pittsfield and North Adams, as well as Central Berkshire, which hosted the space for the group to meet.

Task force members also talked about the need to get early childhood educators involved with the group's work, as well as other representatives from business, arts and special education networks, and students themselves.

Unlike in Vermont where, under Act 46, districts are being mandated to merge, the task force is looking for insight and feedback into a prospective plan of what a single district could and should look like.

"This is a discussion amongst the willing," said task force member Nathaniel "Nat" Karns, who recently retired as executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

"This task force was created because our concern was, if we didn't start to take actions to come up with a coherent system now, the state would step in and require something."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter or 413-496-6239.


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