Richmond Consolidated faces merger choice as Berkshire Hills pulls back on sharing school chief

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RICHMOND — The Berkshire Hills Regional School District no longer plans to share the services of Superintendent Peter Dillon with the Richmond Consolidated School beyond June 30 unless the town's School Committee agrees to explore potential merger into the Berkshire Hills District.

Select Board member Neal Pilson, also a member of an advisory group for the Richmond School Committee, reported the plans to the Select Board at Wednesday's meeting.

But Dillon's services would be provided for one additional year if the School Committee agrees to negotiate with the Berkshire Hills district, Pilson said.

Dillon has been superintendent of Shaker Mountain School Union 70, which also serves Hancock and New Ashford, since 2016. The possible additional year would be limited to Richmond, excluding the other two towns.

Berkshire Hills has offered two options for the Richmond School Committee to consider:

- A merger of the Richmond district into Berkshire Hills for all grades and classes.

- A partial merger that would require all Richmond students to attend Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington while Richmond pays a share of the high school's operating costs. The town also may be obligated to share in future capital costs for the high school, excluding its current renovation plans.

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"I have reservations personally about both options," Pilson said, "but the school advisory committee has not received any relevant financial information from Berkshire Hills. So, it's hard to assess the financial impact that either option would have on Richmond for our tax base or on the issues with respect to our high school students."

Richmond Consolidated School serves students from pre-K through Grade 8. Then, most students attend Monument, though a few choose Lenox Memorial High or Taconic High in Pittsfield through existing tuition agreements.

Pilson noted that Dillon has received "very high grades from our school staff and the School Committee."

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He said that the advisory committee was appointed by the School Committee to put forward suggestions on the status of the future options. As a member of the advisory group, Pilson stated that he knows it's "very much opposed to a full merger" and wants more information on a possible high school merger.

A third option would be for Richmond to discontinue discussions with Berkshire Hills and maintain its own school district, perhaps extending ties with Hancock and New Ashford.

Pilson pointed out that the outcome of the discussions between Berkshire Hills and the Richmond School Committee will impact town residents, specifically on taxes.

But any change in the status of the town's school would be a decision by the Richmond School Committee, subject to a vote at a town meeting. Any potential merger also requires approval by voters in all three towns served by the Berkshire Hills district — Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.

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In response, Select Board member Alan Hanson suggested that "it would seem to be a case of our hiring a part-time superintendent or throw in our towel with those folks."

And Select Board Chairman Roger Manzolini said he wanted to "make sure there's somebody on our School Committee with strong negotiating skills. We have leverage, in my opinion. The kids that come out of the Richmond school system are almost like a commodity that's worth money, and that gives us the leverage."

"There's no reason for us to be part of that [Berkshire Hills] school district," Manzolini said. "It's going to cost us money and we're not going to derive any benefits."

"I agree," Hanson said. "It would be a sinkhole."

Pilson agreed that if there's a decision not to merge with the Berkshire Hills district, Richmond might seek to reconnect with the Shaker Mountain School Union in order to share the costs of a superintendent with Hancock and New Ashford.

However, he noted, those two towns are considering hiring their own part-time superintendent.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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