Alan Chartock | I, Publius: Time has come for South Berkshire school districts to embrace merger

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GREAT BARRINGTON — In all my years of writing about Great Barrington and its surroundings, nothing has fascinated me more than the story of separate school systems —the Southern Berkshire Regional School District and the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

When we first arrived in 1971, we had dinner with Alice Pederson, the doyen who was on the Southern Berkshire School Committee. She was the real deal and nothing mattered to her more than the independence of the Southern Berkshire towns from the Great Barrington dominated district.

Even today, some 47 years later, those old feelings linger despite Alice and so many of her contemporaries having moved on. The problem for all those people who wanted their own separate district is that things have changed a lot. For one thing, there are so many fewer children attending both districts. Then, too, the state government has been breathing down the backs of the districts demanding efficiencies.

Sooner or later that very same set of governments might punish the taxpayers of the districts if they don't get on with the inevitable consolidation of the districts. Then there is the looming suggestion that there should only be one school district for the whole of the Berkshires. That's a lousy idea and is a very frightening alternative for citizens of the Southern Berkshires.

Of course, you can put yourself in the place of members of the two school committees. Some of these folks really like their jobs. They have strong commitment to public service and it makes them important members of the community. That's an easy one to overcome. Just put more seats on the combined committee.

Naturally, there is always the matter of personalities. There are, for example, a few Southern Berkshire School Committee members who have decided that they don't like Peter Dillon, the excellent Berkshire Hills administrator. That's unfortunate since Southern Berkshire had an opportunity to face the inevitable when the superintendent's position was vacant a short while back but foresight of the inevitable was in short supply despite my warnings.

Both districts have high schools, middle schools and elementary schools and some of these things will have to go. Since there are relatively few students to populate these buildings, it really can't be argued that we need all this space.

Among the many things that will have to be fought out is the issue of transportation. There is now discussion of including the Lee school system in the deal. It will be quite a distance even if Great Barrington is the high school hub. In the short run, the combined districts might keep some schools in place but inevitably decisions will have to be made.

Facing the decision makers will be the looming nature of the state government, which may just insist on movement as in "either you do this in the South Berkshires or we'll do it for you." In fact, the need to do this is so compelling that the two committees will be led to the decision, like it or not.

Hey, I really do feel badly for so many of these educational decision makers. They have worked hard and they deserve our thanks. But events and facts change and there is no getting around it.

The argument to the taxpayers is that they can't be expected to shell out hard-earned money to fund separate districts in order to assuage egos and perpetuate old, silly fights. We know how it will end up. So now is the time to pull up collective socks and do what is right.

No question that Steve Bannon, the chairman of the Berkshire Hills School Committee is a wise and sagacious leader. He's the right guy in the right place at the right time. So maybe all those columns over the years will end up meaning something.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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