Southern Berkshire, Berkshire Hills warming up in early merger talks

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SHEFFIELD — Nothing is certain yet, and nothing is off the table.

But one thing was made clear Thursday at the start of talks to possibly consolidate two neighboring school districts: the coming project to rebuild or renovate Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington is not a bill that will have to be footed by the five towns in the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, should the two districts merge.

"We have three towns to help pay for it," said Stephen Bannon, chairman of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District's School Committee. Bannon was referring to Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, and noted that if consolidation were to happen, the state would give the district more money for the project.

"That's the elephant in the room," said David Travis, a school committee member at Southern Berkshire, referring to the Monument project, which has grown enmeshed with calls from Berkshire Hills district taxpayers to consolidate the two systems.

"Not anymore," Bannon replied, amid laughter.

What also became clear at the joint meeting held at the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation is that education, not money, should be the driving force in any decision to merge schools.

Officials see a promising start to the exploration of how a merger can happen, as area taxpayers and town officials apply pressure to consolidate the two districts. The idea is that pulling together resources will save towns money, and expand programs and the social environment for students amid the projected declines in enrollment.

As it is, schools in both districts are not filled to capacity.

Right now, it's all murky. Details still are hard to envision, like which buildings would be used. A facilitator will be sought to help guide the mix of town and school officials that will sit on one committee, and break out into areas of specialty.

A growing warmth was apparent among town and school officials after about 20 years of informal and somewhat prickly discussions.

Times have changed. Sheffield Select Board member Nadine Hawver said the discussions so far have been "respectful, thoughtful, with the goal as the best education for the children in South Berkshire. Quality education at an affordable price."

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And these new conversations might reveal that the districts are more alike than not, and attempts to merge them in some way might only improve them, some school officials said.

Travis said he'd rather move the discussions away from each district's identities and head toward "a set of core values that we're all behind."

Bannon said he doubts that there's a difference in each district's core values, and that all eight towns that make up both already are intermingled.

"The only difference is in geography — it's the same people, our neighbors, the people who work together," he said.

Andrew Potter said it would be helpful to look at what each district does well and apply that to the talks.

Jane Burke, chairwoman of the Southern Berkshire School Committee, said she wanted to make it clear that this is an exploration, that officials are not "planning a consolidation."

Hawver said that this endeavor is not political, but for the benefit of students, and a bold move that will be watched around the state.

"We could make history," Hawver said.

Bannon cautioned that a merger won't likely save the millions of dollars taxpayers expect. But it will help.

"If you can stop the bleeding, and slow the loss, that's important," he said. " I think the real reason for doing this is to make sure the education in both districts stays strong."

The committee will continue to organize itself at the next meeting at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at Berkshire Hills district offices in Stockbridge.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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