Clarence Fanto: Two large school districts in South Berkshire are considering merging. Will voters in eight cities buy it? | Columnists

LENOX – Sometimes an overused phrase does the trick. “Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good” is adapted from the writings of French Enlightenment philosopher and historian Voltaire.

I quote it here in the second and final installment of my review of what appears to be a very good, but perhaps not perfect, proposal from the 8-City Regional District Planning Board. The idea is to combine the Berkshire Hills Regional School District and the Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

The goal is to combine, saving up to $2.1 million annually, as student enrollment in the two districts declines and the tax burden falls more heavily on property owners in Alford, Egremont, Great Barrington, Monterey, New Marlborough, Sheffield, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.

The main recommendation: By forming a single regional secondary school for students in grades 9-12, students at Mount Everett High in Sheffield would move to a renovated, refurbished and expanded or completely rebuilt Monument Mountain High in Great Barrington, a project which could cost up to $100 million and is gaining traction, although probably still in its early stages. Existing elementary and middle schools in both districts would continue to operate as they currently do. One downside: up to 15 full-time jobs could be lost, hopefully due to retirements and attrition.

Under the leadership of veteran administrator Jake Eberwein, former superintendent of Pittsfield and Lee, the development of the proposal over the past two years is complete and is fully transparent. Details are under Resources on the District Planning Board website, 8towns.org.

City officials and community members from the eight cities worked together and, as the council points out, “You, the voters of the 8 cities, will decide the future of our schools. If passed, the regionalization would be the first in the state, Eberwein said.

From 2000-22, enrollment in the two districts fell 30%, with a projected drop of 50% by 2030, from the current 1,752 to around 1,280. The reasons: aging populations, falling rates birth rate and changes in housing patterns, which means fewer school-age children per household. In the Southern District of Berkshire, declining enrollment is also due to high school students choosing to attend Berkshire Hills Regional. Of the school-aged children in the eight cities, 14% attend private schools or are home-schooled.

At the same time, districts faced increased costs for operations, transportation, technology, benefits, and special education. Because state funding is tied to enrollment, Boston’s drop in aid means local residents bear a greater tax drain on school budgets.

The voluminous report on the recommended plan acknowledges some drawbacks: “Regionalization (as a process) will be difficult, but not impossible; governance and fair assessment structures and models are needed; relocation of staff and students from Mount Everett will present challenges; and class size balancing may result in slightly larger secondary classes. It was generally noted that the nature of this unique combination of regions will warrant further advocacy for state incentives and relief.

Because he has been at the forefront of studies of school collaboration, I sought the advice of William Cameron, president of Berkshire Educational Resources K-12, formerly known as the Berkshire Education Task Force.

He explained that “some members of the group felt that with the change in focus – from advocating for large-scale consolidation to supporting local collaborative or consolidation initiatives – we should adopt a name that better describes our work and our current goal.

Cameron, now chairman of the Pittsfield School Committee, previously served as superintendent at Lenox, Central Berkshire and Salem, and was a former assistant superintendent at Pittsfield.

Commenting on the proposed school reorganization in the two South County districts, he described the recommended plan as reflecting “a shared recognition in these communities that the educational problems created by declining enrollment and local financial difficulties cannot be improved than by any consolidation”.

“BERK12, under the direction of project manager Jake Eberwein, has done extensive research on all the options that could be considered. This research has now been released for everyone to see and study,” Cameron pointed out.

“Because of the grassroots origin of the search for a solution and the wealth of information now available on the options being considered, I am optimistic that voters in these eight cities will choose the one that can best support high-quality education. .programs and opportunities for all their current and future students.

According to the ambitious timeline of the Regional District Planning Board, what happens next?

● The 8 Town Board is discussing the recommended solutions this month and in May, voting this summer on the next step.

● Following community feedback on the recommended plan, all 8 municipal councils vote on this model by December of this year.

● The recommendation is presented to the selected councils in each community.

● In consultation with the state education department, a long-term plan emerges and, possibly, a regionalization agreement.

● Residents of each city vote at annual municipal meetings in the spring of 2023 to accept or reject the plan.

● If a regional agreement is approved by the municipalities, the reorganization of the two districts begins with a one-year transition and comes into force in September 2024.

This is the best case scenario; obviously, voter “buy-in” is key to the success of the proposal. If school and city leaders can make the case that students will be better served and taxpayers will get some relief, a landmark collaborative agreement could serve as a model worth exploring by other school districts across the country. Berkshire and statewide.

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