LENOX >> I recall as a young boy campaigning with my Dad, John Pignatelli, when he was running for Berkshire County Commissioner in 1971. We were at a candidate forum in North Adams and my father stood up to the podium and stated that the Berkshires — with 30 towns, two cities and a population of around 160,000 people — had 32 police chiefs, 32 fire chiefs, 32 departments of public works, and 11 high schools. He said that model was simply not sustainable, and communities needed to start sharing services on a regional or a sub-regional basis.
Later, a man came up to my father and told him, "John, you've got my vote, but with that platform you'll never get elected."
Despite those words of warning, my Dad did indeed get elected and for the next 20 years had incremental successes getting towns to collaborate on issues important to them.
I've always shared my father's belief that we can maintain the individual identity and character of towns while also saving money through common-sense collaboration. In 1997 I was interviewed about the future of the Berkshires and I'm quoted saying that "I believe strongly that for the towns to maintain their integrity and for the county to prosper, there needs to be more inter-community involvement."
However, communities are slow to change. Fast forward to today: We still have 32 police, fire and public works departments and (now) 12 high schools, even though our population has declined to fewer than 130,000 residents.
Still, I think that we are now at a time where the opinion of the community is shifting: people are seeing that with rising costs and a shrinking population, we cannot keep on doing things the way they've always been done. We need to start working together, and the ideal place to start is the biggest cost to our city and town budgets: our schools.
With that in mind, 15 months ago, at a countywide school meeting, I raised concern about the financial stability of all of the school systems in Berkshire County. After that, I seized the opportunity to convene a meeting in my legislative district with the six school districts in the Southern Berkshires to start a conversation about our collective futures.
Much to my surprise, the superintendents agreed to meet each month to pursue avenues of cooperation and collaboration and seek state support. After several months of preparation and having named our venture the Southern Berkshire Shared Services Project, we reached out to the Patrick administration and received great encouragement and guidance. However, when we were on the cusp of receiving a state grant to support our efforts in 2014, the funding was eliminated to close a state budget gap.
As a group, we were disappointed but not discouraged, and the project members continued to meet on a regular basis. Despite the loss of funding, the need was still there: we had to enhance educational opportunities across town boundaries and pursue taxpayer relief while simultaneously maintaining independence.
This led me to introduce this effort to the new Baker administration, which felt that these ideas could become a model for the rest of the county as well other parts of the state, and encouraged participating towns to apply for Gov. Baker's "Community Compact" initiative. We now have the six original schools in addition to 16 different communities throughout the Southern Berkshires that have agreed to the same language to explore opportunities of greater efficiency and cooperation, starting with our schools.
Today, school districts and town governments are stepping up when it comes to collaboration: I applaud the leadership in Lee for its willingness to start a conversation of a shared school superintendent, and I applaud the leadership of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District and Farmington River, who have formed a committee to do the same. Recently, we have also seen Sheffield and New Marlborough come together to jointly purchase equipment for their public works department, and Lenox and Lee have agreed to share a building inspector.
This should just be the beginning of talks with endless possibilities. Our county is shrinking and aging at the same time. We have several towns with more deaths than births. Our economic base is ever changing. The industries of the past will not necessarily be part of our future.
How many remember Sprague Electric in North Adams or Rising Paper in Housatonic? Onyx Paper in Lee is going strong and we need to help them be prosperous moving forward but how many remember the once thriving mills employing nearly 4,000 workers in the other mills?
Just as we have had to shift how we personally sustain ourselves economically, we need to shift how we run our towns. We have an opportunity to show leadership at all levels to look to the future. It's time to reinvent ourselves and think about a Berkshires for the generation yet to be born.
It's now time for other communities to embrace the change. I'm proud to say that other school leaders in the rest of the county have begun that conversation through the newly-formed Berkshire County Education Task Force. I will do all that I can to see that they are successful in these efforts.
One of my favorite quotes is from Les Brown: "The only limits to the possibilities in your life tomorrow are the buts you use today." We are heading into uncharted territory, and we will not always agree. However, I am confident that, if we choose to work together, we can create a brighter Berkshires that can last well into the next generation, and the generation after that.
The conversation that my Dad started in 1971 may have been premature for many to believe in at that time, but I believe that the time has come for all of us to embrace his vision of a better Berkshire County. What kind on community do we see as we get older? What kind of community do we see for our children? If we answer these questions and others with "a prosperous and vibrant future for all," let's take this moment in time and make it great.