South County school districts consider sharing curriculum development services
LEE -- Facing rising budgets and declining enrollment, Lee Public School officials last spring decided to eliminate the position of curriculum director, which had been vacant since January.
But while the position was eliminated, saving upward of $70,000 in the current fiscal year, the district still had to find a way to handle crucial curriculum development duties.
So the Lee School Committee set aside $20,000 to either pay teaching department heads to share the curriculum development workload, or to hire someone part-time to help implement education mandates, such as the federal government's Common Core, that would bring uniformity to public education.
The situation is less than ideal, said interim Superintendent Alfred Skrocki, who feels that having a full-time curriculum director is the best way to ensure that English, math, science, history and other courses are taught in line with the rest of the county, state and country.
His counterpart in Southern Berkshire Regional School District agreed.
"It's the navigator to the future of education," said David Hastings, who was curriculum director before becoming superintendent. "You wouldn't fly a 747 without a navigator."
Curriculum director is one of numerous education positions, courses and services that potentially could be shared among six school districts across South County under an initiative currently under consideration.
The six districts -- Lee and Southern Berkshire along with Lenox Public Schools, Richmond Consolidated School, and Berkshire Hills and Farmington River regional school districts -- are being asked to sign on to the Southern Berkshire Shared Services Project.
Once all six sign a memorandum of agreement, the collaborative group would then apply for a Community Innovative Challenge grant, money to be spent on determining what services and programs could be initially shared. The application is due in October and grant awards would be announced soon after.
"This is not about the ‘R' word, regionalization, but about streamlining operations," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat who represents the six school districts. "We also told the state we don't want to do another study, the time is now for action."
He added, "And it's not about anyone's job, but about proficiency and efficiency in the schools."
The efficiency part is improving the quality of education with the leanest school budgets possible, according to Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon.
"We're all sensitive to the impact of schools on the taxpayers," said Dillion. "We have a chance to work together that could be a model for the six districts, the county and state could follow."
The planned collaborative grew out of discussions Pignatelli initially facilitated between Lee and Lenox school officials 18 months ago and expanded to include the leaders of the other four school districts.
In early 2013, Lee and Lenox began planning for similar, yet separate, self studies to assess the future financial, educational and leadership direction of each school system. Residents of both communities, acknowledged by town and school officials, felt their respective municipalities couldn't keep justifying increasing school budgets over the past decade as student population of each K-12 district was shrinking.
School officials elsewhere were also hearing the same thing, prompting the need to expand the discussions.
Through Pignatelli, Lee and Lenox school officials met informally to set the groundwork for possible future cooperation. Each has since hired an interim superintendent to fill the positions left open -- Lenox Superintendent Edward Costa retired and Jason "Jake" McCandless left Lee to become superintendent of the Pittsfield Public Schools.
Going the interim route would allow each town time to determine whether a change in the school leadership structure is needed, possibly a shared superintendency with one or more other school systems.
A single school boss for multiple school districts could be explored under the Shared Services Project, according to Skrocki.
"Everything would be on the table, open for discussion," he said.
Skrocki noted some school districts do cooperative buying of supplies or jointly use the same occupational or physical therapists, but future sharing would be more noticeable -- and profitable -- to students, parents, teachers and the taxpayers.
While sharing services or administrators would produce some cost savings, according to school officials and Pignatelli, finding additional funding for education is another potential byproduct of the collaborative. Farmington River Superintendent JoAnn Austin said professional grant writer could benefit multiple schools, especially her small, rural K-6 school system, which would have a tough time competing for grant dollars.
"Economy of size doesn't work for us, when you need an ‘x' number of students to apply," she said.
At a Glance ...
Lee and Lenox public schools, Richmond Consolidated School, and Berkshire Hills, Southern Berkshire and Farmington River regional school districts are considering joining forces in the Southern Berkshire Shared Services Project. If created, the collaborative would:
-- Explore ways to share services while maintaining high standards for students.
-- Examine opportunities to reduce or prevent future high costs through shared services.
-- Identify initial specific services to share and others for long-range collaboration.
-- Apply for grant funds to support shared service endeavors.
-- Share services with districts as appropriate; share funds as equally as possible among the districts.
-- Work with one or more facilitators to understand possible roadblocks, implications, outcomes, etc. of shared services across the districts.
-- Work with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to ensure shared services comply with state laws and regulations.
Source: Proposed Memorandum of Agreement
provided by Lee Public Schools
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