Our Opinion: Task Force resets school conversation
The Berkshire County Education Task Force will come forward with an ambitious proposal to revamp public education in the Berkshires — with the caveat that no one should react with alarm to the scope of the proposal. We hope no one does. The task force is resetting the conversation about education in a way that invites a necessary Berkshire-wide dialogue.
The task force will recommend that all Berkshire schools be united in one countywide district over the next 10 years, which will result in savings of as much as $34 million a year (Eagle, July 18). Chairman John Hockridge, a North Adams school official and chairman of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, describes the proposal as a conceptual one with a wide variety of details to be investigated before going forward.
The task force met regularly for two years to discuss an educational dilemma that all Berkshire municipalities face to one degree or another. A decline in population leads to a decline in school enrollment. Many fixed educational costs remain in spite of smaller enrollments and health insurance costs for school employees continue to rise. Taxpayers buckling under the resultant strain still want to ensure that students receive the education they deserve. Good schools are also of critical importance if towns want to attract families and businesses, keep the ones they have, and boost their tax base.
A Berkshire-wide school district would include roughly 15,000 students which would not be unwieldy. (For comparison, the city of Lowell's school district includes roughly 14,500 students.) Realigning the county into one district would not be a simple task, but it would promise considerable savings in administrative costs and overhead. Collective bargaining would be a challenge with so many teachers and other employees having negotiated contracts with different districts, but ultimately, as task force member Doug McNally, the former principal of Taconic High School, observed at a meeting Saturday, a unified district would be dealing with one union contract as opposed to 32.
Stephen Bannon, a longtime official in Great Barrington and the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, was among those advocating for three districts to help assure residents of local control. That could be a steppingstone to a Berkshire-wide district or an end game. Merging the Southern Berkshire Regional School District with the Berkshire Hills Regional School District has been discussed and explored in recent years and The Eagle has urged debate about combining the North Adams and Adams-Cheshire Regional School districts. Fewer districts would consolidate costs and relieve taxpayers of some of the burden they currently carry.
Sharing services is an important way that school districts can immediately reduce costs while moving forward on a future reshaping of Berkshire districts. Successful efforts to save athletic teams by combining students from two or more schools into one team pioneered this concept, which has been expanded into sharing costs for transportation and other necessities.
The Berkshire County Task Force's recommendations deserve serious consideration given the amount of time and effort devoted by past and current educators, superintendents, business leaders, high education officials and town and city officials who brought experience and a determination to find ways for their county to address complex educational problems and needs to the table. Its report should not be consigned to a shelf to collect dust nor should it be a cause for alarm and knee-jerk naysaying. Berkshire County needs bold, imaginative thinking to confront any number of issues, including educating its young people. The Task Force recommendations represent that kind of thinking.
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