'It's over,' Pignatelli says


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Citing the reduction in the state reimbursements for regional school transportation, State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli says the state's push for rural schools to form districts "is over -- it's not going to happen."

The state Department of Education has been urging rural school districts like Berkshire Hills Regional School District and the Southern Berkshire Regional School Districts to look into a more extensive regionalization plan this past year. That initiative has lost considerable momentum in the wake of the latest round of state budget cuts to schools.

The incentive for schools to regionalize into districts was the state's reimbursement of their transportation costs, Pignatelli told Selectmen on Monday.

However, he said, "The state has never reimbursed districts 100 percent, which is something they promised to do for years. But that reimbursement is now the lowest it's ever been. If there is no incentive for districts to regionalize, it won't happen."

This year, the state's regional transportation aid evaporated, leaving schools districts in a financial bind.

Pignatelli spoke in the wake of a bleak financial picture painted by Berkshire Hills Regional School District in a meeting with the Selectmen.

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Berkshire Hills faces immediate cuts of more than $600,000 this fiscal year, a scenario which may force up to 35 school personnel layoffs. By far, the largest piece of that cut is a $390,000 reduction in state transportation aid.

Pignatelli said that he does not hold out much hope of any help from the state, and he was critical of Gov. Deval Patrick's budget cuts.

Patrick vowed not to cut local aid, and he has not, conceded Pignatelli. But, the state representative said, Patrick's slash in regional transportation money has dropped the rate of reimbursement to regional schools across the state to about 29 percent per district.

"It's having a devastating effect on local school districts," said Pignatelli. "We're in a revenue free-fall. I think the governor made a huge mistake, and we're trying to get him to reconsider."

Pignatelli said that the budget shortfall is affecting every portion of the state. The staff of every legislator on Beacon Hill are taking five-day furloughs.

Town Accountant Lauren Sartori suggested that the school district contact the private schools who are also transported by the district. The school district, in addition to paying the transportation costs of public school students, also cover the cost of transporting local students to the many private schools in the area.

Sartori suggested there might be a way to ask those private schools to pick up some of those transportation costs. Superintendent Peter Dillon agreed to reach out to the area private schools and seek their input.


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