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Education Task Force Plans Presentations of Phase 1 Report
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
03:53AM / Monday, November 14, 2016
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The task force is made up of educators, administrators and school officials.

Eliot Levine, senior researcher manager for the Donahue Institute, presented the Phase 1 report on Saturday morning.

DALTON, Mass. — Enrollment is declining in Berkshire County schools and costs are rising.

It's one of those things everyone knows — now there's concrete data confirming those notions and pinning down some of the effects on Berkshire County education.

The Berkshire County Task Force on Saturday morning reviewed a 77-page report commissioned from the University of Massachusetts' Donahue Institute on the state of county education.

It's not pretty.

Enrollment is down 22.3 percent over the last 15 years in 17 of the school districts being studied. The only exceptions are McCann Technical School and Berkshire Arts & Technology Public Charter School, both of which have some control over the students they accept.

That decline is substantial compared to the statewide drop of 1.7 percent in K-12 enrollment during the same time period.

The task force was established more than a year ago by school officials, business leaders, local government leaders and Massachusetts Teachers Association representatives to create recommendations on sustaining high quality education in the county's increasing difficult funding and population situation.

The Phase 1 report looked at enrollment trends, cost and revenue trends, and educational program trends. The task force's goal is provide recommendations that improve the quality of education, with the idea that solving or alleviating funding problems would also free up money that can be spent on academics and that collaborations could provide more curricular opportunities.

"This provides what we hope is a benchmark as we move into our challenging Phase 2," said task force Chairman John Hockridge, a member of the North Adams School Committee.

Eliot Levine, presenting the report Saturday morning at Nessacus Middle School, said the institute pulled from available data and from interviews with school committee members and with administrators on changes in programming over the pa st five years and extrapolations into the next five. To dig in deeper, there were also interviews with five administrators who had been in the area for at least 15 years to be get a better focus on the longer time frame.

However, Levine said there are no optimal district sizes and the few studies of regionalization have reported both substantial savings, saving projections and, in some cases, minimal savings or greater costs.

"You need to take one case at a time and you need to know that there are challenges that have been encountered by many other regionalization projects and which have to be thought about carefully, which I know is exactly what the task force is thinking of," he said.

Among the findings was that total school spending increased 27 percent between 2005 and 2015, largely from contracted salaries (although Berkshire County teachers' salaries still grew slower compared to statewide); employee health insurance; and special education services. At the same time, state Chapter 70 education funding increased 23 percent and local tax levies by 49 percent.

Towns and cities are also beginning to bump up against their levy ceilings and the tax levy as a percentage of assessed value is up at 1.52 percent. "This suggests that many municipalities are utilizing a portion of their remaining taxing capacity to support their educational expenditures," according to a summary of the report.

The county has also lost more than 250 full-time equivalent teachers over about a decade, with a corresponding program losses including "foreign languages, instructional technology, curriculum development and library services." Also affected have been honors and Advanced Placement courses, arts, music, computers, vocational and physical education, as well as extracurricular activities.

Phase 2, funded by an earmark in the fiscal 2017 state budget, will look more deeply into actional measures that towns and school committees could adopt including collaboratives, shared services, consolidation, regionalization or even a "super" countywide school district. The task force voted Saturday on a request for services for the Phase 2 report with the expectation of a completed study by June.

Consolidation or regionalization doesn't necessarily mean closing schools, task force representatives were quick to point out.

"We have to be very, very careful that we don't define or accept the fact that consolidation means closing schools," said Doug McNally, former principal of Pittsfield's Taconic High School and member of the Berkshire Compact for Education.

Previous ideas of reorganizing into three districts had people assuming there would only be three county high schools, or that regionalizing South County would put all the kids on the Monument Mountain Regional campus.

Neither was true, McNallly said. "I think as we go out to all the school boards, just as we started saying the task force is not going to tell you what to do ... we're just going to give you information and recommendations."

A summation of the report will be presented to more than 40 school and select boards around the county in the coming weeks. It was important, members noted that communities not only understand the stresses within their own school systems, but in the county as whole. Hancock, for instance, is not having school funding problems.

"But Hancock has no high school," said Michael Case, a member of the Central Berkshire Regional School Committee. "So Hancock's high school is in distress even if Hancock is not."

BCETF Phase One Final Report by iBerkshires.com on Scribd

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