PITTSFIELD, Mass. — City leaders still have an array of questions to ask of the Berkshire County Educational Task Forces' goal of a single district for the entire county.
But, they remain optimistic that even asking those questions and having that conversation will lead to increased shared services.
The task force is now entering its third phase of a deep look at the county's educational system after coming to a decision that it would recommend the county's school districts combine into one. Now, it is the nitty gritty details of a path forward that need to be nailed down.
"Our population continues to decline, the needs of the students continues to increase, and the ability of our communities to keep up with paying for all of this with current structures feels more and more limited with every year that goes by," Superintendent Jason McCandless told the School Committee on Wednesday.
The task force doesn't have any authority to implement policy or craft laws. It is a group of educators and school officials from throughout the Berkshires who have worked together for two years on the study.
Currently, the cost of educating students rises every year and those involved expect that to continue.
"Health insurance alone for municipal and regional employees will drive that increase even if nothing else did," McCandless said.
The state and federal governments continue to raise the expectations of districts, and McCandless said there are some 600 bills in the legislative pipeline and a third of which will come with a price. The needs of the students are rising. And the global marketplace has increased competitiveness for jobs and college.
At the same time, the number of students in the Berkshires is decreasing, the communities ability to pay -- in Pittsfield the city is at its levy ceiling and won't be able to put much more toward budget increases in the future -- is decreasing, and the diversity of educational opportunities is dropping.
"We are very fortunate here in Pittsfield because of our size and what we value ... We have continued to keep options and in some areas grow options. But, I can tell you as a former superintendent of a smaller district, the options are increasingly not there. We are certainly going to hit a point where our options for kids, out of necessity, will be forced to contract," McCandless said.
The answer to address all of that, and an answer that came as a surprise to most, would be the single school district option. That would bring the county's 15,000 students and all of the existing county schools under the direction of one administrative body.
"This would still not make us the largest school district in Massachusetts. In fact, it would make us the sixth largest school district," McCandless said.
The superintendent said the discussion hasn't centered on closing schools, which alleviates much of the concern around student achievement. The superintendent said while the head position of a school district is vital in numerous ways, the direct contact parents and students have with school officials are with those right on the ground level doing the work --the building principals and teachers.
"The district size is immaterial to student achievement. The school size is crucial to student achievement," McCandless said.
That, however, raises a lot of questions. Mayor Linda Tyer questioned what impact that would have on school choice and the budgeting process. Each year it seems those towns in regional school districts find themselves in intense debates over budgets, or new construction.
"I can't fathom it. It just seems like a huge undertaking. I have a lot of practical questions about how you manage this, nevermind the transition," Tyer said.
McCandless has his own questions and says there are "probably 1,000" that have to be answered in the next phase. He wondered what impacts a single district would have on the county's charter school, and how regional vocational education would work.
And to get there, McCandless said it would be a "huge undertaking" to align some 80 to 90 disparate union contracts currently in place.
Despite the daunting task ahead to actually get there, McCandless said it just makes sense to work toward that end.
"We can't lay off 60 or 70 people a year for the next half of a decade and still be the school we want to be. Even we are looking at something has got to give and we need that path all across the county," McCandless said.
The timeline is looked at to take at least a decade to be in place if it happens at all. The task force is looking to lay out a path to get there but it will be up to individual towns and residents to have the say.
Those in Pittsfield says even if it never happens, a lot of positive agreements could come from the effort.
"If you don't reach this goal of a single district in the county, which seems like a huge aspiration, monumental, there may be other things that come out of this work. Like, wouldn't it be interesting if the county all agreed not to participate in school choice? Or what if we had a single tuition rate for every school in the district? What if we, I mentioned this before, what if we merged and had a better pool to be more competitive in the marketplace for health insurance," Tyer said.
McCandless added some more.
"If every K-8 had the same reading curriculum and mathematics curriculum, you could get great pricing. You can get Lamborghini level of professional development from the companies for that level of investment. You could have teachers from all over the county coming together to build the very best model units that could serve every first-grader in Berkshire County, every fourth-grader in Berkshire County," McCandless said.
"If we could get our high schools in Berkshire County to start at the same time and run on the same bell schedule, we could have students Skyping in and out of classes on a daily basis."
School Committee member Cynthia Taylor said two counties in Michigan had reached an agreement to share special education services. For example, the two counties shared a specialist for deaf or hearing impaired students, numbering 47, instead of having individual ones in each district. They also share a data analysis person and have a single transition program for teens.
"They got really creative with how they will reduce costs. It makes more sense to combine services where you can," Taylor said.
School Committee Daniel Elias said he initially rejected the idea because it seemed "unattainable." But the more he thought about it, the more he hit ideas such as those mentioned by others. He called the efforts impressive and wants to now further the discussion.
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