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Berkshire Hills School District faces ‘existential crisis’  

In his letter to the editor, Dave Long of Housatonic writes: "Make no mistake; we could potentially be facing a truly existential crisis. At this point, one bloody town meeting in Great Barrington could throw the entire district into a tailspin. Now is the time — before the warrant for town meeting is cast in stone — to try and head off a nasty escalation of political strife."

To the Editor:

Throughout the Monument [Monument Mountain Regional High School] renovation debate, a number of residents (including myself) repeatedly expressed the fear that the school budget was in danger of collapsing even without the additional burden of renovation costs. It is clear now that these fears are the reality. I have seen enough of what goes on within the district, or at least Monument, to know that the district needs more — not less — resources to fulfill its mission. On the other hand, I have also seen that there is a tremendous waste of resources in overlapping and outdated legacy programs and initiatives.

We cannot “cut our way to success,” as some of the more conservative members of our community may believe. Nonetheless, we cannot spend what we cannot afford without endangering the well-being of the community as a whole. It is also the case that consolidation in itself does not substantively solve many of our problems — in fact, it would create an array of new problems equally as intractable. No, the solutions go to issues that are far deeper than budgets or organizational structure. The solutions are found in more clearly identifying the true underlying educational goals that each school needs to achieve and applying strict discipline when evaluating what exists and what needs to be.

The whole notion that a few surgical cuts — particularly in things like art and math — will buy time to get to real solutions someday is folly. Instead, this approach will simply exacerbate the already turbulent political climate. This is precisely the kind of insular and defensive posture that brought so much ire and distrust upon the school committee in the course of the renovation proposal. To get resident acceptance, there at least needs to be evidence that real change is coming. The conversations surrounding the district agreement are an important step, but in reality, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

It would seem to me that the current budget crisis and the Monument renovation crisis are two sides of the same systemic issue — a lack of clear and actionable educational goals and an unwillingness to think outside the box as to how we might achieve those goals. Too many things are patch-worked together and the broader perspective that would make systemic change possible is lacking. It is not that there is a dearth of creative and focused thinking within individual programs; quite the contrary, there are amazing things happening every day in our schools.

It is the broader perspective that reveals the lack of institutional coherence. Responsibility for the greater vision lies with the district leadership. And while principals participate in the process of governing the district, their role is primarily to advocate for their school. Looking at what each school tries to do with the resources they are given reveals that they are doing a heroic job under the circumstances. Ultimately, it is the School Committee and the superintendent who must provide the vision that directs the schools and frees administrators from trying to sustain extraneous efforts.

Far too often, rumors of impending doom circulate around town followed by a School Committee meeting where a superficial solution is presented as “the best we could do.” The time has passed when this modus operandi might have been acceptable. We, as a community, are at a “Come to Jesus” moment in which we all must do the painful work of determining what is really important for the future of our kids and stop pretending that we can simply hire a consultant or skate around issues that would lead to the restructuring of anything of substance.

In the school committee meeting following the renovation vote, the committee vowed to assemble citizen groups to brainstorm and advise the committee as a component of a renewed effort to fix the high school. It would behoove the committee to step up that process and engage residents in the broad range of issues that face the district as a whole. Make no mistake; we could potentially be facing a truly existential crisis. At this point, one bloody town meeting in Great Barrington could throw the entire district into a tailspin. Now is the time — before the warrant for town meeting is cast in stone — to try and head off a nasty escalation of political strife.

Dave Long

Housatonic

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