Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Shared leadership a daunting but worthwhile challenge
LENOX >> One of the most significant Berkshire County stories this year — not necessarily tweet-worthy or likely to go viral on social media, but critical nonetheless — will be the progress made toward shared services among towns and school districts.
There are some promising signs. The driving force involving potential collaborations between adjoining school districts and, most importantly, among the towns of Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge, is the need to achieve efficiency and stabilize costs to taxpayers as the county's aging population continues to shrink.
Ongoing challenges include the debate over the cost of the urgently needed rehabilitation of Mount Greylock Regional High School and the cost-sharing involving Williamstown and Lanesborough residents.
Similarly, Monument Mountain Regional High in Great Barrington remains in dire need of major renovations despite rejection by the town's taxpayers of a revamp that would have been largely backed by state funding.
Get it done right
The Lee-Tyringham School Union was headed toward a potential shared superintendency, either Peter Dillon of the Berkshire Hills district or Timothy Lee of Lenox, until it applied the brakes for another year of study. No criticism: It's most important to get this done correctly, even if it takes another year.
The crucial element for any collaboration agreement, whether it involves schools or town leadership, is buy-in from local residents, and that may prove a stumbling block.
Dillon's application to split his time between Berkshire Hills — whose students come from Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge — and the Lee schools had the enthusiastic support of his school board. In Lenox, Superintendent Lee's pursuit of the same potential collaboration met with some skepticism from that town's school committee.
The cause of the delay appears to be the Lee School Committee's need to take some time to determine whether it wants the town's schools to partner with a similar-size district in Lenox or whether the committee is willing to marry into the larger Berkshire Hills group, with a possible loss of identity and autonomy.
Perhaps the most promising potential collaboration on the not-so-distant horizon is the agreement by town leaders in Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge to begin considering whether a town manager/chief financial officer for all three communities is a workable and desirable idea.
Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen is the obvious candidate, since the greatly admired town administrator in Stockbridge, Jorja-Ann P. Marsden, is retiring in July, and Lee Town Administrator Robert Nason plans to do the same in June 2017.
A first step
Last week, the Selectboards in all three towns approved a request for free technical guidance from the State Department of Revenue's Division of Local Services. To the best of our knowledge, a tri-town manager would be a first, or one of the first, in Massachusetts, though smaller towns often share part-time administrators formerly known as circuit riders.
This is a first step, nothing more at this point. While it's not clear whether a tri-town manager would have to be approved by town meetings in each of the three communities, it's obvious that strong public support would be necessary.
Winning that support could be a tall order, but not impossible, especially if taxpayers can be presented with specifics on how the towns would benefit on the bottom line.
We live in contentious times. Some citizens will throw ice water on the idea, arguing that running each town is a full-time job, and then some.
It will be up to the leaders in Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge to demonstrate that, with the help of a human resources officer or well-qualified deputy administrators, a dynamic leader could meet the needs of these very different communities.
Difficult, but not impossible. Once residents understand that the town services they now count on cannot be sustained without unacceptable property tax increases or spending cuts in other areas, they may well accept the necessity of sharing leadership at the top, and eventually in other areas such as public works and public safety.
We're only in the opening chapter, the prologue, in what will be a long and difficult saga. When all is said and done, the prediction here is that common sense and logic will prevail. Unified town management will prove to be how to succeed in local government, but it will require really trying.