Berkshire school districts aim for state funding for shared services
Come December, six local school districts may secure state funding to accelerate efforts to better educate their students through shared programs, support services and administrators.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli said Gov. Charlie Baker could visit the Berkshires just before Christmas with good news for the Southern Berkshire Shared Services Project.
"Governor Baker is tentatively set to make an announcement next month to back up this [project] financially," said the Lenox Democrat.
Pignatelli's 4th Berkshire District includes Lee and Lenox public schools, Richmond Consolidated School and Berkshire Hills, Farmington River and Southern Berkshire regional school districts, which banded together a year ago to increase the financial and educational efficiency within the six systems that collectively serve 4,000 students.
Last fall, the six school committees and the communities they represent signed a memorandum of agreement outlining how they will proceed under the Shared Services Project. They will explore joint ventures involving — but not limited to — curriculum director, special education, food service and grant writing.
In October 2014, the districts filed a joint application for a $300,000 Community Innovative Challenge grant to fund the collaborative. But in January, after Baker succeeded Deval Patrick as governor, the request fell by the wayside amid state budget constraints.
The lack of funding didn't deter the collaborative, as several one-on-one discussions emerged that included Lee and Lenox crafting a blueprint for sharing services and Southern Berkshire and Farmington River initially exploring the viability of a merger. Pignatelli believes the Baker administration has finally noticed the collaborative group means business.
"Cynics say talk is cheap; I say it's cheap to talk," he said. "Now is the time to talk implementation, and that's what we need — we don't need any more studies."
Lee and Berkshire Hills seem to have taken the lead in exploring shared services. In addition to the agreement with Lenox, Lee recently advertised a position for a joint superintendency, as the district is now in its third year of having an interim school boss at the helm. Alfred "Al" Skrocki came out of retirement to succeed Jason "Jake" McCandless in July 2013 when McCandless moved into the top job in the Pittsfield Public Schools.
Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon and Lenox Superintendent Timothy Lee submitted resumes to the Lee school board for the new position.
Lee has also accepted an invitation to meet with the Berkshire Hills school board to initiate shared services discussions.
"They seem very eager and enthusiastic to collaborate," said Lee School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Wadsworth.
The eagerness stems, in part, from the decade-long trend of increased school spending as fewer students enter the classrooms in the fall.
"I think we have seen the handwriting on the wall with declining enrollment and what taxpayers want," said Berkshire Hills Chairman Steve Bannon.
In addition to Lee, Berkshire Hills has touched base with Shaker Mountain School Union 70, which includes Richmond, Hancock and New Ashford, and is governed by a single superintendent, Barbara Ripa. The union committee, comprised of three school board members from each community, recently met with Berkshire Hills to form a planning committee, with the possibility of a shared superintendent up as an item for discussion.
"We need a superintendent at the end of the [school] year, if [Barbara Ripa] decides to retire," said Richmond School Committee Chairman Jim Biancolo. "This would have to be a win-win for both sides."
Of the six districts, only Farmington River, a pre-kindergarten through Grade 6 district serving Otis and Sandisfield, and Southern Berkshire, a five-town pre-K through 12 school system, are seriously discussing a merger.
The two districts in late October formed a planning committee to explore the option, citing at its initial meeting the logistics of transportation as a key stumbling block. The ad hoc group also plans to survey residents, parents, teachers, staff and other stakeholders in both districts on whether they would support such a marriage.
If a merger is out of the question, the committee will explore more intently shared services, thus maintaining separate districts.
"I'm not advocating merger, but greater collaboration," said Pignatelli. "My district is 500 square miles and has four high schools — the geography justifies the school districts start talking shared services."
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