Education Task Force Takes in Reaction to Countywide District
Nearly a month after acting on the data accumulated in Phase 2 of the task force's multiyear study of the county's education system, the members at Saturday's meeting remained firm in their commitment that a single school district provides the best long-term option for providing educational opportunity and fiscal stability in a time of rising costs and declining populations county wide.
In fact, the logic of that recommendation is self-evident, according to BCETF member and North Adams School Superintendent Barbara Malkas.
"We need to get the report out there," she said. "We need to get the report more widely distributed. Then the recommendation is an outcome of that report as opposed to a group of people who got together and made this decision.
"I think if people understand the report and the process that produced that report ... we would have looked like idiots if we didn't come out with that recommendation."
On the other hand, members acknowledged the importance of listening to concerns and criticism — informed and otherwise — as it moves into Phase 3 of its process, when it looks to develop a road map toward a goal it sees as attainable only a decade or more down the road.fa
"Don't engage people on social media, but dissent is important," Lee School Committee member Andrea Wadsworth said during a discussion of how to deal with criticism. "We need to hear it so real information can trickle out.
"Have a glass of wine and read the comments [on news articles or social media] and laugh."
To that end, Chairman John Hockridge of the North Adams School Committee used about 30 minutes out of Saturday morning's three-hour meeting to have committee members break into small working groups to compile the feedback they have heard.
Some of the comments were positive, including one working group that reported, "It seems like a whole new set of people are becoming engaged in this who either weren't engaged or didn't know it was happening."
But there were also concerns, not the least of which was a perception by some in the community that the task force itself could not be trusted.
"Two years ago, we were just trying to get heard and no one knew we existed," Hockridge said. "Now, here we are, and everyone knows we exist, and they're mistrusting that we're taking the ball and running with it without other folks being part of the decision — even though we say over and over again we're an advisory group.
"This countywide school district is not comprehensible to a lot of people. That's a real thing that's sitting out there: the mistrust issue."
Other concerns included fears about: how a countywide school district could be implemented; what its financial impacts might be; whether smaller elementary schools would be at risk of closure; how to handle "big ticket" items like outstanding school construction bonds; how existing disparity between school districts would play out in a unified district.
"There's a perception that Lenox and Williamstown would never do this, and that would leave us with a 'coalition of the have-nots,' " one working group reported.
"There's a concern that education would be dragged down by the have-nots ... concerns about leveling down to the less successful schools," another group said.
Everyone on the task force recognized that much more study needs to be done to address those and other concerns. But Hockridge tried to keep things in perspective.
"If you Google 'county school districts,' about 50 pop up — all with greater square mileage and more students than we have," he said. "In Nevada, Clark County [school district] was a merger of 14 school districts. Eight thousand square miles. Three hundred, fifty-seven schools. Three hundred, eighteen thousand current enrollment. Thirteen hundred administrators. One superintendent. One school board, with seven members.
"I guess it can be done. But we'll do it our own way, whatever that is."
The committee members discussed at length how to educate the public about its recommendation and its rationale.
Hockridge got the ball rolling by presenting a draft "FAQ" document that addressed a number of the questions that have been raised and gives a thumbnail look at some of the arguments in the 56-page Phase 2 report. He appointed a subcommittee to review the FAQ and report back for the task force's Aug. 26 meeting, where he hopes to have a finalized document that can be added to the body's website and disseminated through the media.
Meanwhile, the task force, which has 27 members pulled from every corner of the county, also discussed how to make its case face-to-face with constituencies across the county. Some members advocated for engaging in that outreach campaign as quickly as possible in order to keep misinformation from driving the conversation.
Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon argued that outreach effort needs to start by targeting school leadership.
Given the potential difficulty in arranging such presentations, particularly at the start of the school year, a general consensus appeared to build in the members present to use either a conference call or webinar to reach administrators from Mount Washington to Florida, Mass., in one fell swoop.
"Everyone can take 45 minutes if they don't have to drive 45 minutes each way on top of it," Dillon said.
After that, the task force plans to send its members out into the community to make presentations to various school committees, and task force members Saturday discussed the possibility of larger public forums in centralized locations to attract community members who normally might not attend committee meetings.
Hockridge brought the committee's Phase 2 report to an important constituency before Saturday's meeting. He told the group he sat down with state Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and aides from Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.
"All support our efforts and, I'm glad to say, they're in support of the single district," Hockridge said.
To that end, the members of the Berkshire delegation on Beacon Hill expressed their support in working on legislation that would allow Berkshire County school districts to form "modified regional supervisory unions."
According to a handout distributed by Hockridge to his colleague, there are 16 SUs in the commonwealth and three in the county (Clarksburg-Florida-Savoy-Rowe, Williamstown-Lanesborough-Mount Greylock and Hancock-New Ashford-Richmond). While the current SU structure allows for shared services, there are limitations to the structure that Hockridge said special legislation could address.
He pitched the idea of modified supervisory unions as a stepping stone on the road to a countywide school district.
"It could be our early adopters create a union or district that ends up being part of the final product," Hockridge said. "This legislation provides the only thing that ... needs special legislation: the modified school union. It provides a path for folks who want to go that route to wherever it takes them.
"It could be some districts that decide to consolidate with a neighboring school district don't require a supervisory union. At least we'd have this in place."
Task Force member William Cameron argued against the modified SU idea on the basis that it could allow people to see the superintendency unions not as a step but as an end in themselves.
"I can't see this project do much other than come to a halt when you get to this [SU] configuration," said Cameron, the retired superintendent of the Central Berkshire Regional School District. "It's going to look like everything's been achieved. People are going to say, 'Look, we have one superintendent for an area that used to have a bunch of superintendents,' but that's not the problem we came to deal with. The problem we came to deal with is education.
"Having multiple [local education agencies] operating under a single superintendent doesn't solve the problem. I don't see this getting toward what we aspire to."
"We've said all along it would be a phased in process," he said of expanded regionalization. "Our clear and promoted goal is to recommend a countywide school district with steps along the way. The only thing that would require legislation to get involved with is this particular phase, should school districts choose to get involved with it."
Cameron's point about people seeing SUs as an end rather than a means was supported by task force member Carolyn Greene, a member of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee, one of nine districts in the county already operating as part of a superintendency union.
"The difference between a shared service agreement and the formation of a union is huge in terms of a financial impact on the towns," she said. "Forming a region is where you need financial support.
"I agree with Bill and others who say [modified SUs] could be seen as an end. We're seeing that now [as Lanesborough-Williamstown mulls K-12 regionalization]. People say, 'We don't need to go any further.' "
Malkas argued in favor of Hockridge's position.
"Under the 10-year timeline, there are districts that have to take steps sooner," she said. "The legislation would provide districts the opportunities to start this process ... sooner rather than waiting 10 years out so there may be fewer [districts] that need to come together into one 10 years out."
Cameron said he was willing to defer to the judgment on the task force on the point. In the end, no one made a motion to discard the idea of legislation to offer a modified supervisory union option.
In other business on Saturday morning, the task force heard a presentation from Mohawk Trail Regional School District Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, who discussed cost-sharing initiatives in development in Franklin County and an effort to get the state to provide more financial assistance to rural school districts.
Tags: education task force,
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