For the editor:
South County faces a once-in-a-generation decision to gain both educational and economic benefits through a school district merger and reorganization. The details of this study are well documented in the jointly sponsored report for Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire Regional School Districts. The report features scenarios being considered by the 24-member, 8-city Regional School District Planning Board. Consider the potential benefits:
- We can finally move South County students into the 21st century by focusing on educational opportunities to enhance their career and academic options:
- Vocational/Vocational Technical Education (CVTE) programs. Neither district, on its own, can afford the 6-8 certified CVTE programs recommended in the report. These facilities would be co-located with high school so that whatever career choices grade 9 students make, they can take multiple paths within the same school. This week the the wall street journal highlighted the post-pandemic emergence of “New Collar” jobs, a far cry from bifurcated white and blue collar designations. Shouldn’t we prepare our students by integrating programs and facilities?
- Broader educational programs. A high school with 38 graduates cannot offer as many courses as a larger school that might graduate 150 students. Whether it’s math, science, languages, arts or music, we need to offer broader and deeper programs.
These opportunities also have direct economic benefits for South County. A better educated workforce and community are essential to improving our economy. In doing so, housing is attacked by increasing both skills and wages.
- It is important to address inequalities in school assessments. But changes will not happen overnight. Moreover, the basis of the assessments, whether based on the number of students or the estimated value of the cities, will be heartbreaking. A merger of school districts will alleviate some of the inequities depending on the choices made by the committee and, ultimately, the voters. As examples:
- All South County schools are operating at significant undercapacity, as quantified in the new report. Scaling to critical mass will reallocate funds to improved programs. Reducing the number of administrative districts will also save money.
- The resizing will also smooth out disparities between cities. Projected enrollments have been seriously overestimated in the past compared to the report.
- Although schools have supplemented declining enrollment with enrolled and chosen students, there are simply NOT enough students to fill these gaps. Large cities disproportionately bear the brunt of supplements.
- By contrast, a merged district with improved educational and career benefits should motivate towns like Richmond, Otis and Sandisfield to join a larger South County district if they want “guaranteed seats at the table.” Likewise, it will reduce administrative overhead and smooth out valuation disparities.
- While the 8-city consultants mention an allocation method for the new high school, the costs of the new game-changing CVTE facilities should be negotiated more fairly to help us move forward.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. If not now when? All eight cities have seen enrollment drop 35% since 2010. Enrollment is expected to drop another 27% over the next 8 years. We need to build much improved facilities that will benefit students from both districts.
After serving as Chairman of the Great Barrington Finance Committee, I have attended Regional Education meetings for the past 7 years, including 2 years with the 8 Town Regional Council. I have read all the reports. This information and analysis meticulously prepared by an experienced and diverse team involved funding from the state, two districts, all 8 cities, corporations, the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and the Barr Foundation, easily totaling over $500,000. $. When would this happen again?
The recent invitation to qualify for an MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) grant was not easy. As the consultants point out, the possibility of receiving a 50% high school grant is within reach. However, after the 2014 and 2015 rejection of the Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation, MSBA declined consideration of our application for the next 7 years. With their timeline, we need to start with concept design for the combined regions and a scaled-down high school if the merge fails. Please support the design allowance so that the required planning can meet the MSBA deadlines while we continue discussions.
As things stand, the larger cities bear the brunt of centralized amenities that benefit the entire region. Great Barrington has a disproportionate number of tax-exempt facilities: schools (public and private), hospitals/healthcare, cultural organizations, sports facilities, recreation grounds, even affordable housing that attracts young families and more students. Is it fair that central hubs bear the financial burden while peripheral residents use them, without paying a fair share of public costs? Although it provokes discussion, it is not the forum.
A merger should be our FIRST priority to achieve educational and economic goals.