Our Opinion: Districts going forward on sharing of services

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School regionalization efforts in Berkshire County have been inexorably gaining momentum because of the growing realization that there is no other option. Economic and demographic realities on the ground are impelling districts to pool some resources — or at least begin talking about it — which is an important step in overcoming the psychological barriers to consolidation in a county long hindered by parochialism. Some towns and districts in South Berkshire have been blazing that trail in recent years.

Now comes welcome news that a collaboration between the North Adams Public Schools and the Adams-Cheshire district may be glimmering on the horizon. (Eagle, February 9.) Adams-Cheshire's superintendent, Robert Putnam, is retiring at the end of the school year, which leaves open possibilities of a job-sharing arrangement for that position. North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard, who wears a second hat as chairman of that city's school committee, was cognizant of ingrained resistance to even a whiff of collaboration when he told The Eagle that his committee was only "talking about talking" about a superintendent-share (Eagle, February 9). We look forward to those discussions moving past that phase.

Similarities between the needs of the two districts argue in favor of a single individual manning dual helms; declining enrollment and tax base and a reduction in per-capita state funding of students who remain underscore the necessity of imaginative thinking to ensure that students of both districts get the best education for the buck. No one is talking about a merger at this point. Adams- Cheshire is continuing its search for a new superintendent, but should the concept of a job-share gain traction, both district committees would have to vote openly on such a move, and each district's organization and independence would remain intact. Only the payment of a joint superintendent's salary and benefits would be shared — a savings that is hard to argue against.

In another encouraging step, the North Adams School Committee voted last Monday to join forces with the neighboring North Berkshire School Union to split the expense and services of a mutual business manager (Eagle, February 8). While that wasn't North Adams' first choice, a multi-stage search for a replacement for retired manager Nancy Ziter proved fruitless. The result may turn out to be more advantageous for all involved. North Berkshire's veteran business manager, Carrie Burnett, is a proven quantity familiar with the area's specific needs and difficulties, and again, both districts will save considerable funds better spent educating students.

Equally encouraging and even more groundbreaking is progress being made in Clarksburg — a member of the North Berkshire School Union — in seeking to consolidate its elementary school with a corresponding one just a couple of miles up the road in Stamford, Vermont (Eagle, February 8). In many ways, Stamford can be thought of as an unofficial node of Berkshire County; like Clarksburg, it's rural and has a struggling elementary school whose enrollment is in decline. It's off the beaten path in its home state and county, and culturally it tends to look south to North Adams as its nearest commercial center.

Both towns have been exploring the idea of building a bridge across the arbitrary political boundary that separates them. It may only be a line on a map, but it represents hurdles that, while not impossible to overcome, are daunting. While Vermont has a law that actually encourages interstate consolidation (as has occurred between districts in the Green Mountain State and neighboring New Hampshire) Massachusetts has no such law, and dispensation will have to be granted from Beacon Hill if such a vision is ever to come to pass. Massachusetts should adopt its own version of Vermont's law to help communities like those in Berkshire County, which borders on three states, reach cooperative agreements with similarly rural, financially strapped communities in neighboring states.

Additionally, there are differing salary rates, unions, school standards, testing requirements and all the other minutiae of educational officialdom to tackle and ultimately reconcile. Voting residents of both local districts, as well as both state governments, will need to be educated on all ramifications of a merger before anything can be set in stone.

Small and evolutionary adaptations such as these may, over time, erode the landscape of resistance that has historically characterized the discussion of Berkshire County school district consolidation. The strongest antidote to parochialism is concrete evidence that fewer dollars are being spent maintaining the bureaucracy and more on children's education. Sharing services and regionalization have too many benefits for economically struggling communities and school districts for those avenues not to be pursued.


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