NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The chairman of the Berkshire County Education Task Force says he was as surprised as anyone when the group voted to recommend a single school district for the county's 30 towns and two cities.
But John Hockridge is convinced that the proposal makes sense for students and taxpayers alike.
"Most of us thought that was not the direction we were headed in 32 meetings over the last couple of years," Hockridge, a member of the North Adams School Committee, said on Tuesday. "But we went through a process on Saturday that involved breaking into six groups for thorough discussions of the options.
"From the breakout groups, the clear consensus evolved that the single Berkshire County school district represented the best option to enhance the educational opportunities for kids and promote the financial sustainability of the schools."
By a vote of 23-1, the task force decided to recommend the county's municipalities move toward a single school district over a 10-year time frame.
"The recommendation is there for an aspiration, but there is a lot more to come to fill in the details," Hockridge said.
As his committee members have emphasized throughout the multi-year study, the panel's role is to look at the challenges facing Berkshire County schools in an era of rising costs and declining population and make recommendations to the towns and school districts. The task force itself, which includes educators, administrators and school committee members like Hockridge, is powerless.
Its role will continue to be one of advocacy and further study, but it cannot tell any school committee or town what to do, Hockridge said on Tuesday.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the task force has raised $50,000 in private donations to fund its Phase 3 study, which will include economic modeling and a proposed governance structure for the single school district model. The task force plans to use Boston's District Management Group, which assisted the panel in its Phase 2 research.
The 56-page report from DMG found that by every measure of financial and educational benefit, the single district or three-district model (breaking the county into north, central and south school districts) was superior to either the status quo or a more incremental step, the creation of multi-district supervisory unions.
As the task force members have said all along, doing nothing is a recipe for disaster.
"As enrollment continues to shrink and financial resources tighten even more without any of the economies of scale achieved through the other scenarios, there can be little question that the quality of education in Berkshire County will deteriorate," the Phase 2 report reads in part.
The three-district scenario would have advantages over the current structure in the county, but Hockridge said committee members felt that in a relatively short period of time, even three districts would be unsustainable.
"I was one of the least swayed by this approach when we first started talking about [the one-district model], but I was persuaded by the current and former superintendents in the room that this was not much more difficult to create and operate than having a three-region model," Hockridge said. "They were pretty adamant about that."
Hockridge said the Phase 3 analysis likely will include some study of intermediate steps on the road to the full aspiration of a single countywide district.
"I think there will be some areas seriously ready to form with neighboring districts modified supervisory unions," he said. "Modified supervisory unions are an easier way to get from here to there because it puts an umbrella over the current structures. It keeps local control but offers an opportunity for enhanced sharing of academic programming, staff and educator support.
"There's some indication that some of the school districts may be ready to jump to a smaller regional school district off the bat and go from there. Others will want to do an enhanced shared services arrangement over and above what they're already doing."
And Hockridge said efforts to expand existing regions, like the one in the Lanesborough-Williamstown Mount Greylock Regional School District, should continue.
Mount Greylock School Committee member Carolyn Greene serves on the BCETF. She was out of town for the Saturday vote but fully supports the idea of creating a countywide region — even though she has seen firsthand the challenges faced in expanding the junior-senior high school Mount Greylock district to include its feeder elementary schools.
"The first question that comes to mind is: Does anyone think [a countywide district] is possible to achieve?" Greene said. "We as a task force need to at least state that this is the goal.
"Whether we could ever get there, if nothing else, this vote should really encourage if not fuel the local efforts toward regionalization."
Greene said the single district model provides the best chance to achieve fiscal sustainability while also creating equity for students throughout the county.
But she also understands the political challenge to advocates of the one-district solution.
"The amount of pushback and the amount of fear stirred up around two towns regionalizing is reflective of what you'll hear around the county," she said.
Still, she said it is a cause worth fighting for.
"We've got so much data and so much analysis that's been done already," Greene said. "Phase 3 will look at what is the reality of implementation. I want to see what they come up with in terms of what plays out in various parts of the county.
"It's an admirable goal. If we can achieve it gradually over 10 years by smaller regions coming together or being expanded, we'll be a model for the state. That's not a bad thing."
The state already has invested $150,000 in the Phase 2 study to go with the $125,000 that has been raised locally ($75,000 for Phase 1, $50,000 for the next phase).
The task force's efforts have received financial support from local school districts and have the bipartisan backing of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and the county's Democratic delegation on Beacon Hill.
"One of the scenarios was to do nothing, and that's just not an option," Hockridge said. "You can see all of the issues before many of our school districts right now financially and educationally are just going to get worse.
"What we are recommending is what we feel creates the best opportunity to make a difference financially and educationally for the cities and towns. … Hopefully, the combined expertise of the people at the table carries some weight. But we're there to guide and encourage. The school committees and municipalities continue to maintain the local control and to decide whether to participate or not."
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