Panelists Jake Eberwein, left, Paul Butler, Douglas McNally, Robert Putnam and Tony Mazzucco, all members of the task force.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The vision of the Berkshire County Education Task Force is a single, countywide school district that would create sustainable educational opportunities and academic support to a dwindling student population.
The controversial recommendation, made in July after two years of study and modeling, hasn't been an easy sell in the small towns fearing that consolidation means school closings and loss of local control.
But task force members are hoping that officials, parents and community members will see the benefits of at least working toward such a configuration over the next decade through outreach programs like the one held at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts on Tuesday.
"Drawing on all we have learned through Phase 1 and 2, the taks force in July concluded that a single school district offers the best opportunity to provide the best education for the most students at a sustainable cost," explained North Adams Superintendent of School Barbara Malkas to the 70 or so attendees in the college's Church Street Center.
The gathering, hosted by the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition as its October forum, included a presentation of the work of the task force by members Malkas and MCLA Vice President of Academic Affairs Cynthia Brown and an introduction by the task force's Chairman John Hockridge, a North Adams School Committee member.
The presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session with five task force members: MCLA Dean Howard "Jake" Eberwein (former superintendent of the Pittsfield Public Schools); Adams-Cheshire Regional School Committee Chairman Paul Butler; Windsor Selectman Douglas McNally (former Taconic High principal); Adams-Cheshire Superintendent Robert Putnam; and Adams Town Administrator Tony Mazzucco.
"The idea of a countywide school system is more common thorughout the United States ... it's more normal, if you will, than the school model we have here in Massachusetts," Mazzucco said.
Maryland, for instance, has a state superintendent and 25 school districts for more than 850,000 students. Massachusetts, in contrast, has nearly a million students in more than 400 school districts, with 17 school districts in the Berkshires in alone.
The panelists said the ability to consolidate operations would allow greater access to educational opportunities and free up adminstrators who have to be jack of all trades to focus on education.
Putnam told how he'd spent the day ordering handheld radios that weren't up the Fire Department's standards and roofing issues. "I know nothing about that stuff. But someone has to do it," he said. "In small districts like Adams-Cheshire, you become a utility person."
In larger districts, Mazzucco said, there are staff designated to take care of maintenance issues or information technology and other specialties simply not available to smaller districts.
"You'd be surprised how much time your average superintendents spend time doing things like checking bus schedules, managing buildings, handling all sorts of issues that don't have anything to do with education," he said. "We give them the tools and administrative support they need, one superintendent is going to have people assisting them ... It's about using the money we're spending a lot more effectively."
More importantly, larger districts can offer academic opportunities beyond that of smaller schools with limited resources. Schools could synchronize schedules, for instance, to ensure that periods line up for long-distance learning opportunities: one teacher could instruct students in a half-dozen different schools. High school students could participate in online college-level courses at MCLA or Berkshire Community Collage and gain credit for their work.
Elementary schools could be configured by grade rather than towns to ensure equitable education resources. Special education and academic support could be more easily delivered. Schools wouldn't be vying for the same professionals and a larger district would have more flexibility for movement of teachers and staff.
"Right now, depending on the community you live in, that can determine what opportunities you have," Putnam said. "When I went to Monument Mountain, you could take German, French, Latin, Spanish. And now the superintendent of the district told me the only language available is Spanish. Yet, if you were to live in a town next to it, there are more opportunities available."
The inherent inequities in the current system don't speak well for the entire county, he said. "One of the real goals has to be that all of the students in Berkshire County have real opportunities."
McNally said the general lack of vocational education was also an issue. McCann Technical in North Adams is nearly at capacity and the new Taconic High won't open until next fall. He said three students in his community were being bused and tuitioned, costing the town thousands of dollars. Streamlining access for vocational education needed to be part of the conversation, he said.
Some of the questions related to costs but the panelists cautioned that school funding formulas and health insurance were out of their purview. Some savings could be seen by streamlining and eliminating duplications, and in transportation, but the goal of the task force is on improving and sustaining quality education for a declining population.
"It's important that we understand that our assumption would be that the money saved wouldn't necessarily be savings, it would be reinvestment in improving the opportunity and access and the quality of things we're able to offer the students," Eberwein said.
The task force sees a gradual move toward district consolidation, with the presentation noting that almost all the current districts already have some form of partnership as regional districts or superintendency unions. Brown said every district will have to make its own decisions whether to continue to pursue deeper partnerships, keep the status quo or not participate at all.
Bulter said the concept of a single district invites the perception of a lack of local control that "sometimes is difficult to get past."
"Whatever solution we set up, we maintain a connection with the people in the community and the school that's in their line of sight," Eberwein said. That could come through empowering school councils. "We have too many school committees right now but we want a way for people to have a voice in their community."
McNally said, "I would rather have a little less control of a high-quality school than total control of a low-quality school."
A lot of issues would have to be worked out along the way: integrating contracts with the Massachusetts Teachers Association (which has been represented at task force meetings), sorting out governance issues, working with the state and the Massachusetts School Building Authority, dealing with funding and taxes, and reconfiguring, opening or closing schools.
Any of those decisions will be made at the local level, task force members said. The role of the group had been to provide a recommendation to move forward based on research of the current system and projections that the population will continue to decline as education spending rises.
"I think we don't even know what possibilities could open up if we had a regional basis," Putnam said. "It's hard to imagine what sorts of things could open up given the fact that we will be sharing."
The presentation and panel was recorded for replay on Northern Berkshire Community Television.
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