Letter: Hidden detriments to school mergers
To the editor:
As a former member of the Sandisfield Finance Committee, I very much understand the impact school budgets have on overall town finances. Also, as a Sandisfield resident, I understand the impact that merging schools have on a community.
Twenty five years ago, Sandisfield and Otis formed the Farmington River Regional School District as a cost-saving effort. The district has one elementary school for our combined 91 square miles and pays tuition fees for students to attend neighboring districts for high school. The changes did not provide significant savings: according to the Massachusetts Department of Education, in fiscal year 2018, Farmington River Regional was the ninth most expensive district of all 314 districts based on per pupil in-district expenditures. Notably, Southern Berkshire was 18th and Berkshire Hills was 41st.
While the financial impacts are relatively easy to measure, the community impacts are very difficult to quantity, but I will provide my perspective. My family lives more than 13 miles from our elementary school in Otis. That's a 23-minute direct drive, and significantly longer on a school bus. For families considering moving to Sandisfield, the drive up to Otis for primary school and even further for middle and high school is a huge detractor, and likely one of the main reasons that Sandisfield's median age at 50 is higher than the Berkshires as a whole at 46. Plus, Sandisfield has lost a critical gathering spot for its community: its school. I believe this to be the main reason Sandisfield often feels more like a group of people living in the hills rather than a community.
Instead of merging locations, school districts should look to be more innovative and efficient within their existing locations. One potential model is being used at the Carlton School in Salem, where a school switched to a cohort system that groups children by their proficiencies and allows them to transition at their own pace. Rather than having a teacher per grade and ending up with small class sizes, the teachers collectively manage all the students. And it works: changing to this personalized model has also helped the school significantly increase its MCAS percentiles. Yes, changing models presents a huge challenge, but difficult times call for bold leadership.
Sandisfield's attributes surely are different from the towns in Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills. But please be sure not to make the same mistakes as Sandisfield by losing your most reliant community center, increasing travel times, deterring new families from moving in, while still being one of the most costly districts in the state. It's not worth it. Sandisfield's merger may have accidentally had a greater long-term community cost than the savings it promised.
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