Gov. Baker to bring grant for South County school collaborations


During a visit to the Berkshires on Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker will announce a state grant to help six local school districts share programs, support services and administrators.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli said Thursday that the governor is scheduled to stop at Great Barrington Town Hall on to announce a nearly six-figure grant for the Southern Berkshire Shared Services Project.

Representatives from the 17 towns — 13 belonging to the six school systems — that Pignatelli serves will be on hand for the 1:30 p.m. gathering. There, they'll sign a Community Compact allowing for collaboration between them and to accept the state grant.

"The Community Compact has caught the attention of the governor, one his administration thinks will be a model for the state and maybe the country," said the Lenox Democrat. "All 17 towns agreeing to the same exact language of the compact is historic and unprecedented itself."

Pignatelli's 4th Berkshire District includes the Lee and Lenox public schools, Richmond Consolidated, and the 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.

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon said the state funding will help the school districts secure private money toward meeting their collaborative goals.

"We can use this to leverage local banks, philanthropies and others for additional funding," he said.

More than a year ago, the districts' 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.

"The memorandum is a guide, what you do with that road map is up to them," Pignatelli said.

The governor's grant announcement comes 14 months after the six 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 — while initially approved — fell victim to state budget cuts to close a mounting deficit on Beacon Hill.

That didn't deter the collaborative. Several one-on-one discussions emerged that included Lee and Lenox crafting a blueprint for sharing services, and Southern Berkshire and Farmington River exploring a merger.

The ultimate goal is improved education through better fiscal management, according to Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen.

"There should be some cost saving through efficiencies, but the world is more complex ... and the framework is around specialization," Ketchen said.

The specialization could be, for example, several curriculum directors focused on subjects with which they are most familiar and who would work with all the districts at once, according to Dillon.

Several collaborative efforts under consideration include Lee sharing a superintendent with Lenox or Berkshire Hills. Lee is in its third year with an interim school superintendent.

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, who plans to retire, according to the Richmond School Committee. 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 Grade 12 school system, are seriously discussing a merger.

If a merger is out of the question, the districts will explore more shared services, thus maintaining separate districts.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.


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