Our Opinion: Districts are wise to explore merger

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A good idea floated for years is now gaining footing on fertile ground. Officials from the Berkshire Hills Regional School District and the Southern Berkshire Regional School District have agreed to begin talks to explore the possibility of a merger and other cost-cutting measures ("Districts eying merger," September 30). In this era of rising costs, decreasing population and declining or stagnant enrollment, taxpayers, educators and students alike cannot afford to overlook opportunities like this, the likely upshot of which would be a strengthened education system that's currently flagging under budget strains.

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon and School Committee Chairman Stephen Bannon made the request to consider a merger to the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee. A subcommittee called The Future of Education in Southern Berkshire County has now been formed and will soon begin talks about the future of education in the region.

What would such a merger look like? Cost savings in buying fuel in bulk? Probably. Cost savings in establishing a single system of governance? Yes. But one thing it might also enable is the shoring up of threatened arts programs that could find safety in numbers with a larger pool of students and funding from more towns. And maybe it's time to look into a concentrated vocational program whereby students could have the opportunity to focus on trades such as electrical, plumbing, carpentry, and even farming — the sorts of skills our delicate Berkshire economy traditionally supports. This might allow more of our youth to stay put here in the Berkshires upon graduation.

Mergers and consolidations are complex undertakings, no doubt, and can be tough sells politically, but if ever there were two districts destined to join together it would be Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire. Many of the two district's children and parents are already engaged in the same Great Barrington-based civic organizations, church groups, and sports teams.

The Berkshire Hills School Committee voted last month to withdraw its representation on the Berkshire County Education Task Force because of concerns about the task force's recommendation that schools begin work to create one countywide district. The fear of more affluent towns that they would end up financing needed programs in less affluent communities, to their own detriment, are not unreasonable, but the School Committee bailed before the vetting process had really begun. While the one district plan has merits worth investigating, realistically it isn't happening any time soon.

We hope interested parties won't be as quick to discard these smaller-scale merger talks between Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire. We trust the formation of the subcommittee will open the floor for honest and creative thinking on the part of educators, town officials, taxpayers and students alike, joined by a shared vision to strengthen programming and free up necessary funds while reducing duplication of services that burden taxpayers.


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