The forum was moderated by NAACP President Dennis Powell and included Alicia Costa from Working Cities, Brendan Sheran from Pittsfield High School, Andrea Wadsworth from the Lee School Committee, and William Cameron, the former superintendent of the Central Berkshire Regional School District.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Education advocates have identified some major issues facing the future of the county's public school system in health insurance, private educational institutions, transportation, funding, and population.
On Thursday, Jobs with Justice held a forum to bring those issues to the forefront, hoping to build momentum behind solving the problems.
The forum featured Lee School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Wadsworth, Pittsfield High School Vice Principal of Teaching and Learning Brendan Sheran, former Central Berkshire Regional School District Superintendent William Cameron, and Working Cities Director Alicia Costa, each addressing the threats to the education system.
Wadsworth, who has a background in school and municipal finance, said the increased health insurance costs are deteriorating the offerings schools can provide by taking up a larger and larger portion of the budget.
Years ago municipal jobs were desired because 100 percent of the premiums were covered for good, quality health care. But over years, more and more stress has been placed on cities and towns to reduce cost. Deductibles and co-pays have risen and the system has become complicated.
Wadsworth raised particular concern with the cost to employees and retirees and what the increased premiums will mean to those who work in the school system at minimum wage and essentially work for their health insurance.
"These are the people who are taking care of our children. We are entrusting our future with them every day," she said.
She proposed what is seemingly a simple, but also very complicated, idea to help curb the cost: get all of the school districts together to purchase health care collectively.
"If you ban together you can almost slow down this 12 percent increase every year," she said.
She said right now each district is buying insurance on its own. But, there are few insurance providers offering essentially the same plans.
"They are all buying the same product but everybody is paying something different," Wadsworth said.
That would help address the funding issues facing the education system. As health insurance eats up a bigger portion of a district's expenses, other aspects of education get pushed out.
Cameron said health insurance is in addition to increased compensation for educators to keep up with inflation and increasing costs for special education. But what isn't growing rapidly is state support for education — putting more of the burden on local budgets.
"Stagnant state aid, inflationary factors, means the burden to pay for these schools are falling on municipalities," Cameron said.
The state formula for the foundation budget for district essentially boils down to a per pupil cost. In the Berkshires, the school-age population has been dropping rapidly. Between 2003 and 2015, Berkshire County saw a decline in school-age children of 22 percent. In that same time, the entire state lost only 1 percent.
That would mean schools get a decreased support from the state, but lawmakers have agreed to hold the county's schools harmless. Still, that leaves a relatively flat level of funding from year to year while costs are increasing.
In Pittsfield, that's a big problem. In the last year the district laid off 68 employees because the city didn't have the ability to increase the budget. The city is at its levy ceiling and health insurance grew by $3 million. The school budget had to come in below last year's funding level while still covering those increased costs.
Cameron said more and more towns are approaching that ceiling. That will lead to cuts in the education system and limit what schools can offer. In the next eight years, Cameron said projections show another 11 percent decrease in school age children.
Those trends were generally known two years ago but Cameron and others put together the Berkshire County Education Task Force to really delve into those numbers. The Donahue Institute was brought in to do an independent look and it confirmed that the situation was as dire, if not more dire, than officials had believed.
"It is been apparent that there is a problem that is growing worse with every passing year," Cameron said. "There are too many schools chasing too few kids."
The county has 12 public high schools serving 3,500 students. Cameron said the comprehensive set of educational offerings will continue to decrease in each school if something doesn't change. The population trends, however, are not likely to change.
The task force contracted District Management Group to dig even further. It came up with some ideas but what the task force felt was the best way to preserve the more comprehensive education would be to move to one district. That'd allow certain schools to become more specialized instead of trying to provide education for every single type of student.
"It would allow the most extensive, comprehensive programming, it would allow the most instructional sections for students," Cameron said.
Not only would that help preserve the number of offerings, it is expected to lower costs. Wadsworth said even without closing any schools and without layoffs - but replacing jobs through attrition there would be a 14 percent savings. She said collectively the county spends $250 million each year on education, and that can be dropped by an estimated $36 million.
While the public schools are facing those threats internally, there is also an external threat. There is a growing movement from those in power to push for private education. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is supportive of expanding private education. That will increase the number of students choicing out of the public district, and thus lowering the funding available to continue providing a comprehensive set of programs in the public schools.
And there are charter schools. Sheran said state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Paul Sagan had donated $100,000 to the campaign pushing for more charter schools in Massachusetts and another $500,000 for similar campaigns nationwide.
William Cameron highlighted the work of the Berkshire County Educational Task Force to address these issues.
Sheran was active in pushing against the ballot question in the last election to raise the cap and said expanding charter schools comes at the expense of the public school system. More charter schools, which are publicly funded, means there are more schools going after the same pool of funding. In Massachusetts, a Foundation Budget Review Commission has already identified that the state has been woefully underfunding its education system.
If a student opts out of the home district, state funds follow the student. Meanwhile, the traditional public school system has an increasing number of special education needs, specifically in post-industrial and poorer towns. The districts provide education for those students but as more of the wealthy, well-educated families move their students to other schools, the traditional school's test scores drop, and thus so do the school rankings.
"The deck, I feel and many feel, is stacked against districts with higher needs," Sheran said of the way the state ranks schools.
The rankings are based on standardized testing scores. Sheran said there are plenty of graduates from districts like Pittsfield, and the city offers more advanced placement courses than anywhere else in the county, who are the top level scorers and destined for the Ivy leagues. But, the city also has to educate the students who don't do so well in the school setting or have disabilities. The scoring gives the wrong impression of how well a school can educate any one student, and further accelerates school choice.
"It is the communities that have the highest needs population, special ed, the highest needs for language," Sheran said of which schools end up being ranked lower.
"Boiling it down to a 1-5 is really not good and that fuels the school choice piece."
But the students who can't choice out to the wealthier districts — and reports show the wealthier districts tend to do better with ranking and thus become more attractive for choice — are those who can't get there.
Costa said families in the Berkshires who don't own a car are unable to get their children transported to other districts.
"We have very limited public transportation in the Berkshires, both geographically and hourly," she said. "Basically without a car, you are out of luck."
That problem doesn't necessarily have to be that way, she said. There is an entire fleet of vehicles throughout the county from school buses, to the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, to individual organizations that could expand transportation options. But, those organizations operate in silos, she said.
For example, the BRTA is not legally allowed to be used for education. The fleet of vehicles at Soldier On are only allowed to use them to transport the population it serves.
None of those issues have a simple fix. But, the panelists all felt there is a way to mitigate them before they devastate the system. The two-hour forum was attended by a few dozen local people at the Berkshire Athenaeum. It was moderated by NAACP President Dennis Powell.
"Let us lift our voices in this community and let's lift them loud, and put our energy and financial resources to improve what we have and not get bogged down in creating something new," Powell said.
"I think we all need to put our collective minds together to really change public education in our towns, communities, and state."
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