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Educational Task Force 2/3 Way Through Presentations To Local Governments
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
03:45AM / Monday, December 19, 2016
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John Hockridge and Ellen Kennedy presented to the Northern Berkshire Vocational Regional School District on Thursday. It was just one of many meetings the group has been presenting at in the county over the last month.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Berkshire County Educational Task Force has had a busy month presenting at 30 or so public meetings with still more than a dozen to go.

The task force is rolling out its plans for Phase 2 of a study looking at the future of Berkshire County's school systems. The next phase will dive deep into various options — from leaving things as they are to creating super-regional school districts — and is funded with $150,000 from the state.

The efforts are to explore ways to counter declining enrollment mixed with the rising costs of education and offer school districts recommendations on how they might address those vexing issues.

"The do-nothing model will be an eye opener ... they're going to see the cliff is getting closer, closer, and closer," said task force Chairman John Hockridge, a North Adams School Committee member, when presenting to the McCann School Committee on Thursday night.

In the next phase, a consultant will take the data collected in the first phase to explore the impacts on education, finances, organization, legal, and political and social for four ideas — the towns can do nothing, can expand collaboration and shared services, can create more formal regional districts with neighboring towns, or create one to three super regional districts.

Each of those options will pose its own challenges and opportunities. The task force hasn't taken a stance on which model is the feasible or the best, but does agree the do-nothing concept isn't going to help schools in the long term.

"What are the barriers to these models?" said task force member and Berkshire Community College President Ellen Kennedy. "We want to fully explore every one of these options. We want concrete options to pursue."

The task force has already presented the Phase 1 results multiple times — painting a pretty clear picture of the current state of education. The enrollment in local schools has dropped 22.3 percent over the last 15 years, while the rest of the state only declined by 1.7 percent. By 2025, the county is looking to lose another 10.8 percent in enrollment, beyond that another another 6.5 percent decline. Meanwhile in the last decade, school expenditures grew by 27 percent while tax levies rose by 49 percent.

"I think the second phase will be a really sobering phase, as if this hasn't been sobering enough," Kennedy said.

Right now the county has 19 districts to educate between 15,000 and 16,000 students. The city of Springfield has 25,000 in one district. It is clear that cities and towns will have to work together.

"We're in this together and if you can give us any feedback or if we can do something on our end to get you more data, we'd like to have that feedback," said Andrea Wadsworth, business administrator for Lee Public Schools, when she presented to the Pittsfield City Council on Tuesday.

The hope is by next June, the advisory group will have recommendations to make. Because the issues are so vast — from the political feeling that towns won't want to give up their districts to finding out how to get the critical mass to offer the most Advanced Placement courses and other electives, to even figuring out how towns with limited Internet service would be able to succeed in certain schools — the task force is asking stakeholders to become active in this next process.

Each school district is facing different issues. Pittsfield has the most students, has an array of course offerings and the largest number of resources, but the city is close to its tax ceiling, limiting the amount it can pull from the taxpayers. Meanwhile, the city is seeing many students leave the district for other schools, chipping away at the budget. Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said he could envision a path that would bring more students into the district, helping the city, while also helping small towns.

"We have the resources and offerings," Krol said.

McCann, however, doesn't have the issue of declining enrollment. The vocational school is just one of two in the county and its higher enrollment trend is expected to continue. But the school is funded by participating towns and if more and more towns approach the tax limits, that could significantly strain the funding for the school.

"The enrollment piece doesn't affect you as much but the rising costs do," Hockridge told the McCann School Committee. "We are all in the same boat one way or the other."

Superintendent Jams Brosnan said, "every school district has to look in the mirror and say 'how can we do better?'"

In the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District, the two towns are considering closing an elementary school. But neither town wants to do that. Adams already has a vacant school building and doesn't want a second while Cheshire doesn't want to close its elementary school. The two towns already share a high school.

"We don't have the base to do much more. The last override was brutal," said Cheshire's representative on the McCann committee, William Craig. "We don't want to close our elementary school but it is clear we are going to fall into ourselves if we do nothing."

One McCann committee member threw out the concept of possibly one day having one district encompass students from the Vermont border to Lanesborough and Cheshire.

But other parts are moving at the same time. Lanesborough is already in the process of looking at regionalization with Williamstown. And, the two towns are currently constructing a new high and middle school. Prior to the school construction vote, the concept was floated for Lanesborough to join the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District, which had just recently renovated its high school, but that was rejected fairly quickly.

Meanwhile, the Central Berkshire Regional School District is entering the process to renovate schools. Pittsfield is building a new high school. The task force says that can all move forward as planned because right now, it doesn't have any recommendations as to which way to go just yet.

"I wish everything would freeze in place and we can address everything together," Hockridge said, but added that's not reality and the force is remaining neutral on any decisions towns make at this point.

Lanesborough's McCann representative Robert Reilly said the efforts of the task force is the "canary in the coal mine" and will pave the way for towns to work together more. He urged the task force to really engage with the boards of selectmen as the process unfolds.

Then again, Lee and Lenox are currently struggling just with the concept of sharing a town administrator. That political tug of war is mostly certainly going to be an issue with the various options on the education side as well.

But the good news is, they are all at the table. Close to 30 people sit on the task force representing nearly every town or school district in Berkshire County from Great Barrington, Stockbridge, Lenox and Becket to Pittsfield, Lanesborough, Williamstown, and North Adams.

Educationally, Reilly says the implementation of anything gives the opportunity for the schools to adjust education goals to more closely align to changing job markets.

"It's an opportunity to change not just the structure but how we educate," Reilly said.

The consultant contract hasn't been awarded yet and between now and mid-January the task force has been scouring the county giving the presentation to city councils, school committee, and boards of selectmen.

"It is premature for us to be looking into the future saying this is what needs to happen," said Central Berkshire Regional School District Superintendent William Cameron.

The funding for the Phase 2 portion was nearly lost in the budget. Gov. Charlie Baker had vetoed the funding secured by the local delegation. The Legislature overrode the veto. In August, the governor met with the task force. Now halfway through the year, Baker has issued 9C cuts including many of his original vetoes. But, the funding for the task force remains in place.

"I think the governor was pretty impressed with your presentation and I think it opened some eyes," Pittsfield City Council President Peter Marchetti said.

Kennedy, however, says even though the state is supportive of the issue, it isn't going to dictate how the process unfolds. She said any recommendations and implementations will come from the "grassroots" of Berkshire County.

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