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The Berkshire County Education Task Force discusses the single school district model and potential hurdles on Saturday.

Education Task Force Continues Study on Countywide School District

By Jeff SnoonianiBerkshires Correspondent
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Project manager Jake Eberwein, center, presents his management plan to the task force.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire County Education Task Force is trying to anticipate potential problems on the pathway to a unified county school district. 
 
The task force meeting at Berkshire Regional Planning's office Saturday morning certainly didn't solve any problems but did try to outline where those challenges may arise. 
 
As with all other education initiatives the first hurdle they have is money. More specifically the lack of it.
 
"The full proposal we pitched (to the state Department of Education) was $420,000 for each of the first three years and then another $250,000 for each of the next two," said outgoing Lee Superintendent Howard "Jake" Eberwein. 
 
Eberwein will be the program manager for the BCETF as it studies the move toward a countywide school district, the ultimate goal the task force determined on in its initial research in providing high quality, equitable and sustainable education in Berkshire County. 
 
Eberwein presented task force members with a draft of a work plan to study a single-district model. He quickly clarified the financial reality of the project.
 
"The reason I'm throwing those numbers out is because we don't have that money. I want to be sure to temper expectations," he said.
 
The BCETF did receive a $50,000 grant from the Barr Foundation and a $50,000 earmark from the Legislature secured by state Sen. Adam Hinds. It's with that $100,000 it will fund work in 2020. Chairman William Cameron said they have applied for an additional $150,000 in grant money but called the realization of that money "questionable."
 
If fully funded, the task force planned to install a fully staffed administration for the project and hire outside, expert consultants with specific legal, financial, and legislative knowledge pertaining to a possible reorganization. They also would've used that money to fund the initial pilot project of a single school district.
 
Eberwein stills feels those goals are achievable but finances necessitate a more modest approach.
 
"We are trying to keep the spirit of those original investments, having those three [goals] still in play," he said.
 
Money isn't the only roadblock, however, as Lee educator and Massachusetts Teachers Association representative Ginger Armstrong pointed out. She mentioned a few specific issues from her constituents.
 
"The pushback I'm hearing is that it's a social justice issue. How are you going to get the wealthy communities to 'pay for' the poorer communities? 'I've got mine I don't care about them.' [Wealthier communities] like their small class sizes. They like their small little communities," she said. "If I'm deemed a bad teacher are you going to send me to North Adams? And I don't mean that in a good school or bad school way I mean it from a 'I would then have to drive [from Central or South County to North County]? It's the details they want to know."
 
Armstrong feels communication is the key to allaying any fears of "Big Brother" telling individual towns how to run their schools or who to hire and fire.
 
"Who is the school committee going to be? How do we get a vote on where the money goes? I think we have all the pieces but we need to have that one-minute elevator speech."
 
Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee member and Sheffield resident Dennis Sears has been dealing with the proposed merger of his district with the adjacent Berkshire Hills Regional district. He thinks once towns realize and are assured that they ultimately decide their fate, they could have a better dialogue about a one district model.
 
"We in Southern Berkshire are heavily engaged in a similar process right now. It's very obvious in our communities that what the general public is more concerned about, and they don't seem to even understand, is that they have the final voice on what happens with education in this county," he said. "Here's what they should keep in mind. The final result is you the voters will ultimately make a final decision based on the best efforts of a group of people done in public meetings. All we are doing is saying 'Here's our plan on what we think should be followed.'"
 
Public relations was a common concern at the meeting as several misconceptions held by the public were mentioned.
 
North Adams' John Hockridge, a former School Committe member and past chairman of the task force, a brought up the most common one when discussing the need for the public to see a more visual example of what a one-district county would look like.
 
"It's not one school in the middle of Berkshire County. It's probably what 50 percent of the people out there think," he said.
 
Although it sparked some humorous back and forth about what the football team would be called and where the one school would be located, public relations are a major issue concerning this or any other proposed school district consolidation.
 
"One of the points of disinformation that is going to be tough to overcome is this notion of one school. But if we do become a single district, certainly not all the schools that are currently being used are going to be used. At some point we have to look at that," said Task Force member Carl Stewart and Southern Berkshires' chairman.
 
Lee School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Wadsworth, also chairman of the local  district for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, sees the same challenge getting a clear message to faculty and administration about potential school closures.
 
"I believe the study we did with DMG (consultants), the analysis was initially that no one would lose a job. I think that's important. People are going to be operating out of fear and I think that's a natural position," she said. "Also no school would be closed. But we never said what that time frame would be. Maybe the next comment to make might be that no school closes within the next 5-10 years. But we have to recognize that there is local control and local governments. For some people, the school is the center of their town. We have to recognize that when we are making recommendations and collecting data. Ultimately we are going to have to answer the question 'What happens to MY school?'"
 
There are myriad other obstacles to overcome before the task force makes any proposals or presentations. When asked about how the administrative structure of a single model district would work, Eberwein admitted that despite best efforts of everyone involved it might lead Berkshire County back to exactly where it is now.
 
"We need to make the education and finance argument. If we can't make those arguments why dive into the governance issue? It may be a future barrier but if there is no case to be made [education and finance-wise] there is probably no need to address those other issues," he said.
 
Wadsworth brought up a segment of the population yet to be addressed: the students. Although the specific topic she broached isn't one the Task Force is involved with, it was them having a voice in the process she wanted to stress.
 
"There was a student in North County representative of a school committee ... he would like to look into high schoolers saying they're tired because they have to come to school too early. Wouldn't he have more breadth and depth if he were coming from one district rather than a little district in North County?" she said. "Kids are bringing things to us, to school committees. They would have more say legislatively [in a single district model] to change the time school starts."
 
The task force adopted the plan proposed by Eberwein unanimously with a caveat to restructure the budget should additional grant money become available. 
 
The next meeting of the BCETF will be Saturday, Dec. 14. at 9 a.m. at the Berkshire Regional Planning office in Pittsfield. It is open to the public.

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