A Personal Reflection on the 8-Town Merger
I’d like a minute or two of your time to discuss Stockbridge and the case for the merger of our two school districts. I have spent well over 200 hours in meetings and prep time over the past three years to hammer out an agreement that serves the interests of both Stockbridge and the regional community. You can vote at the Special Town Meeting on Oct. 23 to support this merger. I urge you to show up and do so.
I grew up in Stockbridge and graduated from Monument in 1980. There were over 300 children from Stockbridge attending K-12. This year, it’s around 100. By 2030, it will likely be around 75. By 2040, 50.
This isn’t just a Stockbridge story: In 2000, Sheffield had 860 students. In 2020, that number had dropped to 396. On mass.gov, you can read Sheffield's Housing Production Plan, which includes a projection that Sheffield will drop to just 151 students by 2040.
This isn’t a surprise. The explosion of housing prices started here (closest to Tanglewood) and it will certainly impact surrounding communities like a meteor striking an ocean. Young families have been priced out of the market, and many seniors, even if they own their house outright, are under pressure due to the uneven nature of the surge in assessments. Sure, all of our towns are exploring ways to add workforce and affordable housing, but it remains to be seen whether there is the political will to fund it, as only funding from local sources can completely limit applicants to local residents.
We saw an acceleration of housing costs during COVID, where many wealthy urban folks bought a Berkshire home as a hedge to limit exposure. The duration of COVID was relatively short. Think about climate change. The Berkshires are likely to remain relatively mild compared to the devastating impacts in other locations, what with the high temperatures, fires, flooding, and the like. The next big challenge to local housing will be those who hedge against climate and want a home in a place where the weather is mild. Like here.
In 2000, the median income in Stockbridge was $45,000 and the median house price was $235,000. In 2023, the median income is still $45,000. The median house price is $700,000. Stockbridge assessments will jump by double digits both this coming year and next. Median single family home assessments will in just five years have gone from under $500,000 to well over $800,000 by 2025. This, despite the doubling of mortgage interest rates.
Stockbridge used to have its own elementary school, the Plain School, and its own high school, Williams. Thank goodness town voters at the time realized we would be stronger together and joined Berkshire Hills. If we hadn’t, we would have a high school beset by the challenges of this extraordinary decline in our student population. We’d have far fewer sports, extra-curricular, and specialized classes. But it’s not just that offerings would be limited: it is also the interaction between kids, and the ability to find friends. Simply put, it’s easier to find your “posse” with larger classes, especially for the shy, the different, the off-the-beaten-path types.
Let me be candid. I was one of those kids others found weird in grade school. I didn’t easily make friends. I was unhappy. I dreaded the prospect of going into the 7th grade with that hour-long trek to Searles Middle School. And then I got there and boy, was I wrong. I arrived that first week and made a bunch of new friends. Ironically, the new kids reintroduced me to the Stockbridge crowd, and during my high school years, I was able to forge town friendships that I maintain to this day. For the first time I looked forward to going to school, a direct result of attendance at a regional school with a larger student body. That new start, those new kids, they may well have saved my life.
Like those decisions towns in our districts made half a century ago to regionalize, this decision is multi-generational. Those leaders who got it done are long gone, but we should thank them still for their tremendous hard work and vision, seeing what was coming, not just over the next few years, but over the long span of decades.
Fast forward to today. Dozens of leaders from all eight towns toiled and completed the extraordinary work that informs this plan, using real science-based data projections. Contrast that with those whose views are based on anecdotal evidence and “everything will be fine” thinking. Personally, I have spent well over 200 hours, in meetings and homework, crafting this plan over the last three years, and many worked far harder than me. Trust this plan: it is thorough, informed, comprehensive, and visionary. It saves us hundreds of thousands each year. It expands our vocational offerings, critical when you consider that 50% of South County high school graduates either do not attend or do not finish college. With the larger student body, we can continue to offer electives, languages, and other curriculum enhancements that require students to justify. Finally, our clubs and sports will continue to thrive as we will have enough students to field our teams.
On the last point, this isn’t academic. We recently converted the old little league field behind town offices to, well, a field. When I was a kid, I played for the Interlaken Indians (my dad was the coach). We were the scrappy team when compared to the dreaded (but not dreadful) Stockbridge Braves and Stockbridge Yankees. Think about it, we had enough children to field multiple little league teams. Today, we can’t field even one.
Games used to be a chance for kids to enjoy, for parents to socialize, for friendships to forge, for coaches to motivate, and for umps to be chumps (sorry, Tom Ryan). It all adds up to community, and that part was lost when we lost most of the children. Don’t let that happen to the high school.
Please, I implore you, give future generations of children a fighting chance. Nurture their interests. Expose them to as many opportunities as possible. Provide them with the critical mass of classmates in high school to demonstrate to a child who needs a reset that it gets better, that they have a shot at being happy.
A friend’s grandmother used to say to us, “Life gives you lots of chances if you let it.” That’s what this is all about. A child born this year will be a senior in the class of 2041. Here’s a plan that meets this child’s needs. Over and over, I have asked merger opponents, what’s your alternative plan? Over and over, I get no response because there isn’t one.
This is likely the most important decision our towns will make in a generation. We really do know what’s coming, and voting this down, putting our collective heads in the sand, is choosing to do nothing in the face of this certain future. A “no” vote is the far scarier of the two options. A “yes” vote is a vote of confidence that we are and able to manage our own destiny.
Make the right decision and show up and vote “yes” for this merger. The future of countless young people depends on it.