Looking ahead: Top 5 issues to watch in education


The first week of 2019 has barely wrapped up, yet there is plenty of action in education on the local and state fronts.

From more discussions of school mergers and consolidation to revamping the decades-old school funding formula, here are five key issues to watch in the weeks and months ahead:

1. The Berkshire County Education Task Force has been meeting since July 2015 to explore the future of local public pre-K through 12 schools amidst projections of declining enrollment and increasing costs, and concerns with maintaining high-quality educational opportunities for all students.

After two phases of research and data analysis, the volunteer group of veteran educators and administrators have proposed that the county move towards a single district to best meet the population's long-term educational needs, from expanding the depth and breadth of course offerings to providing better quality student support services. This recommendation has not gone without its fair share of both advocates and opponents.

Still, the group has pressed on with its findings and efforts, meeting for a full day's work on Dec. 1, at Berkshire Community College. During that time, members collectively took a deep dive into the goals and logistics of what a transition into a single district would entail. On Dec. 17, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission posted a part-time, temporary position of "project specialist" to work with the task force towards "developing a model or models for one school district in Berkshire County."

The Berkshire County Education Task Force will reconvene this Saturday, Jan. 12, at 9 a.m. at Nessacus Regional Middle School in Dalton to detail its latest findings and developments.

Meanwhile, meetings will be held in the towns of Clarksburg and Stamford, Vt., to continue discussions of an interstate merger of school districts. The issue will be discussed at the Stamford School Board's Meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. this Thursday at Stamford Elementary School, and at an informational town meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 22, at the Clarksburg School.

2. State Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, is continuing to beat the drum on the issue of education funding reform. She and other legislators are basing this movement on research and recommendations of the state's Foundation Budget Review Commission, which found that the 25-year-old funding formula has not properly accounted for health care, benefits and special education services inflation rates over time. The result? A more than $1 billion budget gap underfunding per-pupil spending.

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Gov. Charlie Baker has also indicated in recent remarks that the funding formula for education needs to be updated.

The matter of how the act of closing these gaps will be accomplished is left to be debated, whether it be through taxes or other sources of revenue. According to the State House News Service, a group of state legislators, members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and other education leaders and stakeholders will convene a press conference at the Statehouse on Wednesday morning to detail proposed legislation to make this change.

3. Speaking of numbers, the Senate and the House on Jan. 1 enacted a bill proposed last march to establish new financial literacy standards in Massachusetts K-12 curriculum "... to equip students with the knowledge and skills needed to become self-supporting and to enable students to make critical decisions regarding personal finances."

As the nation continues to struggle with student loan and credit card debt, the next generation will be exposed to comprehensive lessons about debt, taxes, savings and other components of personal finance under the bill. Action by Gov. Baker to sign the bill into effect is due by Friday.

4. Early childhood advocates will continue to tug at the ear of legislators for funding for fair wages and transportation reimbursement in what has also historically been an underfunded field in education. Advocates are also looking for cooperative community efforts to help ease the burden of costs of childcare on families. A legislative forum is tentatively scheduled for the spring to bring more awareness to this issue.

5. From bomb threats to high-speed traffic, fights and abuse, there are myriad concerns regarding student and school safety across the county. There is no doubt that administrators, community, parent and student groups will continue to discuss strategies and activities to proactively work to create healthier school climates and safer surroundings to support student learning and growth — the purpose of educational institutions to begin with.

Berkshire districts will continue to work with the Anti-Defamation League to support student and staff trainings to promote tolerance, while municipalities, law enforcement and other agencies will continue to develop safe routes to schools and emergency plans.

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


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