Hopes, challenges ahead for Berkshire County schools

Education may not have been a hot topic on the past year's presidential election trail, but it's certainly been in much discussion around the Berkshires.

While school enrollment isn't increasing, the populations local schools serve are growing increasingly diverse across the board, be it by need, race or gender. By law, public schools must offer all these children a free education appropriate to their needs. And what family or school doesn't want to ensure that education is of high-quality?

But the definition and terms of the matter of quality are ranging and often clash with the resources and funding made available to support a high-quality and empathetic experience for all involved.

That said here's a review of how the above influenced county-wide conversations and actions on the local education front, and how it will inform what's next in schools in 2017.

Year in review

In 2016, the three biggest conversations included: the Berkshire County Education Task Force and findings reported from a University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute study it commissioned to analyze past, current and future education trends in public school districts; school building planning and construction projects, and the statewide ballot question on whether to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in the commonwealth.

Berkshire County Education Task Force

Now comprised of 27 education, community and state leaders, the advisory group has been meeting for the past 16 months to, "Research, advance, and recommend solutions with focus on quality educational outcomes of college and career readiness while ensuring financial sustainability," while "addressing demographic, economic and social challenges facing the Berkshires," in order to enhance the quality of education and living for residents. The group raised $75,000 in private sector funds to hire the Donahue Institute for the study.

"This is, in my memory, the first time a county-wide group has convened and committed to a regional education conversation and strategic planning process," said Howard "Jake" Jacob Eberwein III, dean of graduate and continuing education at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and a former K-12 public school educator and administrator.

The report found that evidence and data reviewed "clearly indicates that the quality of education in Berkshire County is being threatened by these

factors [i.e., decreased enrollment, rising costs, and declining or flat revenues], with program impacts already being experienced in some districts and signs of potential program impacts over time in most districts." (Learn more: berkshireeducation.org)

School buildings

With an aging population in tandem with declining school enrollment trends county-wide, the idea of building new schools in not universally agreed upon, especially when it involves tax dollar investment and spending. So the construction of the new $120.8 million Taconic High School in Pittsfield and voters' approval back in the spring for a $64.8 million Mount Greylock Regional High School construction project in Williamstown are considered great feats a long time in the making and, in some people's opinions, long overdue. Both projects are in the works and are expected to be completed in the fall of 2018.

To also meet new demands in 21st-century education and workforce needs, Berkshire Community College is nearing completion of nearly $30 million in renovations, which includes dramatic renovations to its Hawthorne and Melville halls, as well as facilities upgrades to the Field Administration Building. A "hardscape" project, which will include the resurfacing of some parking lots and access roads on the Pittsfield main ampus, will follow this summer.

In the independent school sector, Miss Hall's School in Pittsfield also successfully expanded its campus by adding a new residential building and an academic/innovation building back in the fall.

The matter of charter schools

Also referred to as "Question 2," November's statewide ballot question to expand charter schools in Massachusetts may not have had an immediate impact locally, but it would have certainly reset the tone and potential. But about 62 percent of commonwealth voters shut the proposal down, keeping the cap at 120 charters; there were 78 active charter schools at the time of the vote.

In the Berkshires, of 63,925 ballots cast on the matter, nearly 68 percent of voters turned the measure down.

The most astounding element of this debate was the amount of money invested in lobbying for either side — $19.5 million for the cap lift, $13.4 against it — according to an Oct. 27 report by WBUR, citing records from the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. While about half of the funds from the campaign opposed to the cap lift came from within the state, and largely from big teachers unions, the campaigns in favor of the ballot proposal were largely funded by "dark money" sources, "intermediary nonprofits that aren't required to identify their donors," and more than 80 percent sourced from out of the state. And none of that money from either side appears to have been invested into Massachusetts school infrastructure or instruction.

What it does show is how contentious the matter of education reform and choice remains in the county, as well as the state and country.

So what's next?

There will be many stories to watch in the Berkshire County education field in 2017.

At the top will be funding. While Governor Charlie Baker's administration has outlined a Chapter 70 funding increase of 2.6 percent or $116 million, to $4.6 billion total for the commonwealth's schools, recent proposed 9C budget cuts may affect things like the $150,00 legislative proposal to fund a second phase of the Berkshire County Education Task Force's work to find viable models of shared services, partnerships and distribution of districts to sustain the county's education system.

Other stories to watch will include: the county's transition to MCAS 2.0, the new statewide testing system to be introduced this spring; the development of more business-education partnerships; the development of social-emotional curricula and strategies in schools; how the county continues to address diversity and achievement gaps; the movement to increase wages among early childhood workers; and enrollment and completion trends in higher education.

Have a story about Berkshire County education that you'd like to see reported this year? Email jsmith@berkshireeagle.com or call 413-496-6239.


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