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Proposed school district merger for Southern Berkshire County fails after half of towns involved reject it

Voters at the Great Barrington, Massachusetts, special town meeting on October 23rd, 2023, inside Monument Mountain Regional High School.
Josh Landes
Voters at the Great Barrington, Massachusetts, special town meeting on October 23rd, 2023, inside Monument Mountain Regional High School.

A plan to combine two Southern Berkshire County school districts has been scuttled after only four of eight towns voted to accept it.

Years of planning went into the proposed consolidation of Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire, which would have seen the pair of under-enrolled districts join forces to both share space and cut costs. Berkshire Hills represents Great Barrington, Stockbridge, and West Stockbridge, while Southern Berkshire serves Sheffield, Alford, Egremont, Monterey, and New Marlborough. At Monday night’s special Great Barrington town meeting at Monument Mountain Regional High School, school district planning board representative Deb Phillips offered voters some history.

“In the spring of 2019, the Berkshire Hills School Committee sent a letter to the Southern Berkshire Regional school district school committee to ask if they wanted to discuss the possibility of merging," she explained. "The select boards of all eight towns were copied on that letter. In response to that letter, the eight select boards agreed that they wanted to study the possibility. In early 2020, our eight-town board was formed and it was comprised of three members from each of our eight towns, including at least one school committee representative from each town. Superintendents had been part of the study from the beginning, and we've held over 180 public meetings since we formed and collectively invested thousands of hours in this work.”

Phillips said the data collected showed that rising costs of education and declining enrollment present an existential crisis to the two districts.

“Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has noted that as a region, we need to attract 660 more people aged 20 to 49 annually to stabilize our school age population," she said. "For the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire school districts share of this is about 80 new young and middle-aged adults moving into their communities every year. We don't even have the capacity for this to happen.”

With the goal of saving money and offering the most options to the region’s students, the board called for consolidating the districts’ two high schools – Monument Mountain in Great Barrington and Mount Everett in Sheffield – into one new building on the Monument campus while leaving the K-8 systems as is.

“At the high school level, the increased number of students will allow for us to for the ability to offer all courses offered at either school to all students, to maintain large enough class size for diversity of experience, will free up teaching periods for additional electives or second sections, more advanced placement and advanced courses, and increase Chapter 74 career and vocational educational offerings and post high school tracks,” said Phillips.

Annual cost savings for the merged district were projected at upwards of $1.8 million, and its proponents noted that the towns would receive greater state aid to build the new high school building as a unified entity.

“This new school district will create an opportunity to offer more extracurricular activities including those presently offered at both schools, more support for students with different needs a more diverse guidance staff more mental health and wellness offerings," Phillips continued. "And more importantly, a diverse student body will create a broader culture of broader inclusion and more people for marginalized groups.”

While attendees broadly expressed support for the merger, there were dissenting voices.

“The proposal in the warrant disregards the reality and experiences of current students, their parents, and the hard-working educational professionals at both districts," said Resident Lindsey Berkowitz Brown. "Under the proposed plan, a significant number of our students will face our long commutes on the bus to get to school and back each day. In a world here and now, where bus drivers are already in short supply, how will we get our children to school?”

Berkowitz Brown works in the Southern Berkshire district.

“There will be higher student to teacher ratios," she continued. "The agreement also doesn't address the impact this will certainly have on the educational professionals at both districts. Teachers, ESPs, and support faculty will inevitably lose their jobs at all levels. How many of my colleagues will lose their jobs? I've asked this question a number of times, and no one has given me a straight answer. Many of these educators, myself included, are the same young families that we should be protecting here in our community. With no job, it's certain that more of us will be forced to leave. If we as faculty are the bedrock, then where is our seat at the table. Why has no one listened to our needs? Why haven't my questions been answered?”

Steve Bannon, who chairs the Berkshire Hills school committee, Great Barrington’s select board, and is a member of the merger committee, addressed the question of layoffs.

“What I envision and what the committee I believe envisions is that there will be no layoffs, that by attrition, by retirement, there may be people not replaced," he said. "But that goes on over two, three, or four years, or whatever it takes, but there is not going to be layoffs to start this.”

As Great Barrington’s meeting drew to a close, results from other town votes began to trickle in. Town moderator Michael Wise.

“The town of West Stockbridge voted yes on the school, 86 to 14," he announced to applause. "The town of Stockbridge voted yes on the school, 107 to 14, and Great Barrington voted yes on the school 374 to 88.”

But as the cheers wound down, so did any hope of the merger’s acceptance. While all three Berkshire Hills communities OK’d the plan, four of the Southern Berkshire towns rejected it. Egremont, which decisively nixed the proposal with a vote Saturday, was joined by Monterey, New Marlborough, and Sheffield – in an overwhelming 503-99 decision – Monday night. Only Alford reached across the district divide to accept the merger. With that, the plan has been abandoned, and Berkshire Hills will move forward on building a new high school alone.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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