Our Opinion: Building momentum on district mergers

Shared services and regionalization efforts in education are building a little momentum in Berkshire County. That momentum could perhaps cross Berkshire County's northern border into Vermont.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Wednesday approved a plan to add the Williamstown and Lanesborough Elementary Schools to the Mount Greylock Regional School District, creating a pre-K-through-12 public education system (Eagle, October 27). The plan will go before voters in both communities at special town meetings on Tuesday, November 14.

The merger will streamline administrative services, ending what Williamstown School Committee Chairman Joseph Bergeron described as an administrative "nightmare" at a recent meeting (Eagle, October 24.). Running the three schools collectively rather than individually should reduce duplication of services and provide cost savings through efficiency.. Lanesborough Regional School Committee Chairwoman Regina DiLego told The Eagle that the final proposal approved by the state assures that no elementary school will be lost, which was a concern of parents. Significantly, the Mount Greylock, Williamstown and Lanesborough School Committees have endorsed the proposal even though it calls for the two elementary school boards to be disbanded. Ideally, voters in both towns will back this carefully considered and crafted merger as well.

Stamford, Vermont has long had interest in merging school districts across state lines by linking up with Clarksburg Elementary School. That effort suffered a setback when Clarksburg's school reconstruction project was defeated by voters on September 27. (Eagle, October 27.) A re-vote on the $19 million project is scheduled for November 18, with a two-thirds majority required. The cost of the project has concerned many in Clarksburg, but a merger with Stamford could assure that an adequate number of students even in the event of population loss.

Should Clarksburg go ahead with the school project, however, an eventual merger is far from assured. A Vermont law that provides tax incentives for districts that consolidate is in danger of expiring. And while Vermont and New Hampshire have a compact that allows interstate school districts to merge, it has no such agreement with Massachusetts.

There are many complexities involved in merging school districts across state borders, among them different educational tests and standards and union contracts. However, Massachusetts should at least have a compact with Vermont and the other four states it borders that allows and encourages these agreements. New York and New England states all have communities facing the same financial challenges that Berkshire schools face and they should be free to explore innovative solutions.

In South Berkshire County, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee and the Southern Berkshire Regional Committee have agreed to form a joint subcommittee to discuss a possible merger and other cost-cutting measures. Skepticism is present in the towns, but these districts are a natural for regionalization.

In response to concerns on the part of Lenox School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughn that Berkshire Hills was interested a collaboration with Lee-Tyringham but not Lenox, Berkshire Hills School Committee member Richard Dohoney made it clear that Lenox had not been excluded from discussion (Eagle, October 23). Lenox and Lee-Tyringham are natural partners, and their participation in a larger South Berkshire district would have considerable potential for cost savings and reducing duplication of services. That should certainly be explored.

North Adams mayoral candidate Robert Moulton told The Eagle he backs exploring a merger between the Adams-Cheshire and North Adams school districts, and while candidate Tom Bernard wants to let the one district recommendation offered by the Berkshire County Education Task Force have an opportunity to play out, he told The Eagle that enrollment numbers, using Drury High School as an example, point to the inevitable. In one form or another, those three communities will need to join forces.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump is urging the state to provide financial incentives to districts that pursue regionalizing (Eagle, October 22,) Funds for busing, which the state has long underfunded, would be particularly welcome, and as the auditor has suggested in the funds, the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority could play a role in providing that transportation. It is in the best interests of communities to pursue shared services and mergers, and if the state could push that effort forward, all the better.


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