Berkshire school officials, legislators brainstorm on education challenges
By Jenn Smith
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POSTED: 06/24/2015 02:05:31 PM EDT
LEE >> When it comes to maintaining high-quality public schools with an eased burden of cost on taxpayers, Berkshire County doesn’t need any more Band-Aids; it needs a sea change. And it has to come from a collaborative, committed, creative local leadership team.
That’s the renewed call put forth by state legislators who convened a forum in partnership with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees at Lee Middle and High School this week.MASC held a membership meeting with legislators at 4:30 p.m. Monday. A 6 p.m. forum followed, attended by more than 50 public school officials and school committee members, representing districts from Williamstown to Sheffield.
Though all participants agreed that something has to be done — and not soon enough — consensus remains elusive regarding a specific path forward.
Over the course of two hours, Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, moderated a question-and-answer panel with state Reps. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox; Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield; Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, joined by Ryan Chamberland, director of Western Massachusetts constituent services for the office of Gov. Charlie Baker.
Downing cited evidence from census reports and a May 7 report on Berkshire public school enrollment trends published by the Berkshire County Regional Planning Commission and said, “the numbers have us becoming older, smaller, poorer, and by most accounts, a sicker county if we don’t step in and change with way we do things.”
“We’re going to have disagreements on how we get there and how we do it, but where we are now is neither sustainable nor right,” the senator said.
With current budget constraints compounded by an overall declining student population in most of the county’s public schools, Downing estimated that districts are poised to lose up to 60 teachers countywide in the coming school year.
Anecdotally, Adams-Cheshire Regional School Committee member Ed St. John IV said his district faces losing another 28 staff in the coming academic year after voters last week turned down a school budget override.
“There’s no more fat to trim,” he said. “We’re actually losing an arm and a leg.”
Pignatelli also recognized the burden of school budgets on taxpayers.
“We have small school systems, rising school budgets. I think there’s a lot more pressure on an aging population and I think we need to face up to that fact and deal with it,” the 4th Berkshire District representative said.
Pignatelli said that community leaders need to help remove the “broken” “parochial barriers of our own little towns” to look at ways to solve countywide problems, be it through shared services, re-districting, consolidation or other agreed upon alternatives.
Over the course of the forum, Pignatelli, Downing and their fellow Berkshire delegates repeatedly advocated for the formation of an ad hoc countywide planning committee to help vet concrete proposals and funding opportunities.
School committee members and other town officials in turn asked legislators for guidance, resources and data to better understand what a revised Berkshire County public education landscape would look like.
Lanesborough Finance Committee Chairman Al Terranova suggested legislators help put together a physical map of what, if starting from scratch, new districts would look like. Downing suggested the most effective model would be to have between 600 and 800 students enrolled in a high school.
While Central Berkshire Regional School District and districts in the Southern Berkshires have already formed collaborative groups to explore issues particular to their regions, Cariddi said she hopes Northern Berkshire will make a stronger effort to join in the conversation and planning.
Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee member Dennis Sears said of the proposed approach that “We have to chop this up in pieces.”
“It’s still a political environment we live in today,” he said, noting that some towns are going to be reluctant to give up the heritage and history associated with a particular school building, system and name.
Downing warned against using such rhetoric saying, “We shouldn’t be proud of the fact that we can’t get our act together countywide. I think the problem is at a scale where we don’t have the luxury of not looking at it countywide.”
Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon also made a case that some issues will vary by geography.
“Chapter 70 aid has been increasing for urban districts but has gone down for rural districts,” he said, referring to general education aid. Regional transportation reimbursement, also known as Chapter 71, has also never been fully funded from the state.
Other issues brought up included the need to take an in-depth look at school choice tuition exchange, filling the gaps for access to local vocational education programs and determining how much each current district owes in paying off debt relative to existing school infrastructure.
Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier said keeping momentum in addressing these issues is critical. “There is urgency in [addressing] this,” she said. “We can’t wait ’til September to get started. We need a committed team of leaders to meet at short intervals.”