School costs, and young families, on decline in Stockbridge

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STOCKBRIDGE — As the year-round population of young families continues to decline, fewer Stockbridge students are attending the Berkshire Hills Regional School District in Great Barrington.

The result: A decline in taxpayers' outlay for education in the town's proposed 2019-20 budget.

The district is seeking $2,771,000 from Stockbridge for education operating costs, a decline of 1.4 percent from the current year. For current capital projects, the assessment is $104,000, a drop of 10 percent. Total town spending, including the school district assessment, is projected at about $10.8 million.

"It's good and bad," said Selectman Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo, noting that the welcome cost reduction is offset by the problem of fewer children in town. Select Board Chairman Donald Chabon cited ongoing discussions on how to attract more young families.

Stockbridge enrolled 116 students at the district's schools as of Oct. 1, a drop of 13 from the previous year, according to the state's official totals.

In a recent briefing for the Select Board, district Superintendent Peter Dillon noted that assessments for Great Barrington and West Stockbridge have risen due to an increasing percentage of students in the district from those two towns, even though the actual numbers dropped slightly. Assessments for 2019-20 are based on the Oct. 1, 2018, enrollments.

For the current year, Great Barrington provides 73.5 percent of the district's enrollment, up from 72.1 in 2017-18. Stockbridge's share is 12.8 percent, down from 14.7 percent the previous year, while West Stockbridge is providing 13.6 percent of the total, up from 13.1 percent in 2017-18.

Dillon also noted that an informal group of local residents appointed by the Berkshire Hills School Committee has been exploring options to address building deterioration at Monument Mountain Regional High School, focusing on educational priorities contrasted to space needs.

Choices outlined by the superintendent include building renovation with only a limited impact on education; a renovation and addition; or construction of a new building. Recommendations to the School Committee are expected within the next few weeks, and are likely to be either the renovation-addition option or a new building, Dillon said.

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Potential funding support from the state also will be explored, he added, in the form of a design study involving the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Within two years, Dillon predicted, a proposal could be ready for a decision by voters.

Two previous attempts to fund a major MMRHS renovation with 40 to 50 percent state support were rejected by a majority of the three towns' voters in 2013 and 2014, though Stockbridge and West Stockbridge voted in favor while the more numerous Great Barrington residents were opposed.

Dillon rated the quality of education in the schools as "quite wonderful," citing seniors recently accepted to prestigious colleges, including two admissions to Williams College. Vocational and technical education projects also are being stepped up, including health, automotive and horticultural programs.

He described current South County enrollment as having settled on a plateau.

"We've seen the bulk of the decline," Dillon said. "As schools go, so go the communities. If we have vibrant, engaging, interesting high school, middle and elementary schools as the beacons of great learning and education in South County, then when people choose to come to the Berkshires, they'll choose Great Barrington, Stockbridge or West Stockbridge."

While the area has attracted new arrivals from Colorado, New York and Eastern Massachusetts, he pointed out, "there have to be well-paid, interesting [job] opportunities. But many of my own teachers can't live in the community they're working in because housing costs are high."

As for discussions about combining school districts, Dillon said that four South County district leaders meet monthly to explore collaboration, "but many people are afraid of the "C" word, consolidation. The likely thing is shared services first, developing strong relationships."

As a superintendent, Dillon — he is in his 10th year at Berkshire Hills — is finishing his third year of sharing his own supervisory services with the Shaker Mountain School Union, which includes Richmond, Hancock and New Ashford. A decision is likely in December on how and if the arrangement might continue.

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


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