One school district for all 15,000 of Berkshire County's school children. That's what an advisory panel of educators, local officials and business leaders is recommending. They commissioned a new study that said this approach could solve a lot of the problems schools are facing.
The study said the county as a whole could save tens of millions of dollars each year by banding together. John Hockridge is the chair of the Berkshire Education Task Force and is a member of the North Adams School Committee. He said much of the discussion by the group recently had centered around the upside of dividing the Berkshires into three districts, but something else became clear during those sessions:
"Doing it at a county level just took all of those advantages and expanded upon them and just provided more opportunities for academic programming, more ability to provide expertise, shared staffing and shared services," Hockridge said.
At the root of financial problems many Berkshire districts face is the county's dwindling population, and in turn, school enrollment. State funding formulas are largely based on how many students a district has. Add in rising employee benefit costs and many places have laid off staff and offered fewer classes. And many warn the current model, 19 districts for 32 communities, won't work much longer.
Carrie Greene, is a task force member from the Mount Greylock district. She said the group approach is needed right now.
"The more we can support education across the county and offer programming to our students that might not be available in an individual school, because of the strains fiscally and administratively on that school system, the better off we all are," Greene said.
Any final decisions on consolidation will be up to the individual cities and towns. The idea of some local governments giving up control of their schools will be a sticking point.
Pittsfield School Superintendent Jason McCandless admits the whole concept could be a hard sell. But he said it's worth talking about.
"It's really up to 32 different communities to join together in some way and have the conversation about 'Hey. This is out here. It's not impossible. We can do it,'" McCandless said.
The task force's next step is talking with school committee members and town officials around the Berkshires. Any move toward a single district could be a decade away.