LEE, Mass. — The Berkshire County Education Task Force has completed its initial mission of determining options for local schools facing difficult economic and academic futures.
Now, it's hoping to offer pathways to school officials as they decide whether and how far to proceed toward the task force's solution of a single countywide school district.
William Cameron, task force member and retired superintendent of the Central Berkshire Regional School District, presented the coalition's goals to the meeting of Region VI of the Massachusachusetts Association of School Committees last week.
The task force last met on Sept. 22, he said, "at that time we acknowledged how much remains to be accomplished in our schools if we are to meet the current and future educational needs of Berkshire County residents."
The group of school officials, educators, administrators and committed residents voted to take a two-track course: the first would be to offer, to the extent possible, financial and technical support for districts to engage in larger-scale and more extensive collaboration efforts and the second would be to work toward developing detailed models for implementing a countywide school district.
Models would attempt to address the issues required for greater collaboration such as finance and accountability, collective bargaining, governance and administration, state regulations, transportation and legislation that would be needed for such a district to operate.
Cameron said the funding for these efforts would come from a "sizeable appropriation dedicated to the work of the task force made in the FY2019 commonwealth budget."
The funding had been introduced by state Sen. Adam Hinds and supported by the Berkshire delegation.
The task force was established several years ago as an advisory body to research solutions for the twin pressures of declining enrollment and risings costs faced by local schools that would also enhance and sustain academic efforts.
Its recommendation of a single countywide district that would streamline governance and administration and allow greater academic collaboration was greeted with wariness and, in some cases, defiance.
Since then, however, there have been "tentative conversations between districts regarding greater regionalization perhaps occasioned by the task force's work, perhaps not, have taken place," Cameron said, but none have addressed long-term reorganizations that would also expand academic programming or put schools on a "sounder financial footing."
The Lee and Lenox public schools had talked about some form of collaboration several years ago that went nowhere; North Adams and the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District briefly toyed with the idea of sharing a superintendent. The latter two did, however, join together to create a special education collaborative to reduce costs and offer close-to-home education for those students, and North Adams and the Northern Berkshire School Union are now sharing a business manager. South County schools have collaborated on a calendar for professional development days.
But those efforts have done little to address the continued decline in student population in a county whose population is aging. The task force is finding the erosion will be slightly sharper than initially projected. The county is expected to drop by more than 3,000 students — double the number of students in the North Adams Public Schools — between 2015 and 2028.
The greatest belt-tightening has been at Adams-Cheshire, which closed an elementary school and had enough room to move Grades 4 and 5 up to the newly renovated high and middle school. But a number of schools are falling below even their expected enrollment numbers for 2018: Berkshire Hills Regional is 71 students lower than expected and Pittsfield, 67.
On the other hand, some school districts are doing better than projected, such as Lenox with 76 more than expected and North Adams with 42. Enrollment figures overall may be affected by school choice, relocations or other factors but the county is still down by 687 students since 2015.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli Warned that a "silver tsunami" is coming.
"We're having the conversations and we need to keep the conversation going," he said. "The schools are sitting at the same table in the same room and that never happened before."
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