Shaker Mountain schools tap Berkshire Hills leader for shared superintendent post

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RICHMOND >> The Shaker Mountain School Union 70 has tapped Berkshire Hills Regional Superintendent Peter Dillon as its shared-services superintendent under a "leap of faith" agreement — likely the first of its kind in the state — to be negotiated.

The unanimous vote by eight school union members — Shaker Mountain includes Richmond, Hancock and New Ashford — followed consecutive one-hour public interviews with the finalists Monday night at Richmond Consolidated School.

The other candidates were Lenox Schools Superintendent Timothy Lee, who also applied under a shared-services model, and Amherst-based independent consultant Mark Prince, a "traditional" candidate for the three-day-a-week position.

"It's time for me to take on another challenge," Dillon said when asked why he was keen on adding the Richmond and Hancock school buildings to his superintendent responsibilities at Berkshire Hills. The district's 1,339 students attend Muddy Brook Regional Elementary, Monument Valley Regional Middle and Monument Mountain Regional High, all in Great Barrington.

"We've set up really good systems in our own district," Dillon said, "and I'm really confident in the leadership of the principals, staff and other people in my leadership group."

Describing his role as president of the Berkshire Superintendents Roundtable and involvement in countywide and South Berkshire task forces exploring collaborations, he asserted that "it's very clear to all of us that we need to do more work on shared services. The best way for me to play a role in leading that is to actually do it."

Asked how the arrangement could be a win-win for Berkshire Hills and for the Shaker School Union, Dillon cited the need to build relationships to find "opportunities to figure out ways to do more with less. I think we can bring teachers together in professional learning networks to share best practices. Both of your schools are doing really well, so there's lots for us to learn from you and in other ways, there's lots for us to share with you."

Over time there may be some cost savings, he acknowledged, but downplayed that possibility in favor of using resources "in different ways that are more impactful on kids and their learning."

Dillon, who has been Berkshire Hills superintendent for seven years, emphasized that "rather than sitting in my office writing memos," he prefers to spend time with teachers, principals and students "to figure out ways to support them. I really see my role as a coach and support of principals."

As a superintendent of the Richmond and Hancock schools, he told the committee members he would spend time in the buildings, especially in the beginning: "The most important thing I could do would be to quietly and unobtrusively meet people and then spend time in people's classes and get a sense of what's going on."

Looking ahead, Dillon said: "I'd love to see the schools maintained for many, many years to come. I also recognize the challenges we're facing in terms of demographics, enrollment, budget costs."

The Richmond Consolidated School serves 177 students from pre-K through Grade 8, while Hancock Elementary has 44 enrolled through Grade 6. Most New Ashford students attend Lanesborough Elementary and then move on to Mount Greylock Regional.

He described the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee as unanimously supportive of shared services: "What School Committee is unanimously supportive of anything?" he said, "so it's a huge deal."

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Last fall, he noted, the committee voted to "actively, thoughtfully and a little aggressively to pursue shared-services opportunities."

Committee member Rich Dohoney was in the audience during Dillon's interview.

Dillon conceded that negotiations would be required to work out details of the collaboration.

"I think the challenge is very quickly and very early getting on the same page about goals and priorities," he pointed out, describing either a one-year or two-year agreement as a "leap of faith." Within several months after the school year begins next fall, an assessment would be needed on how well the arrangement was working for both sides, he added.

Rather than "uncharted territory," he described the prospective agreement as "unusual but not unprecedented." He cited "interest in this as an experiment" by state education official Christine Lynch, who oversees regional districts. "She thinks it would work but when she told me, 'Do you know what you're getting into,' I reminded her of my past role in New York," Dillon said.

Before relocating to the Berkshires, Dillon was director of policy for the New York City Public Schools, with 1.3 million students, 80,000 teachers and 1,600 school buildings. He described his direct responsibility for 150 to 300 schools, and helped start 150 new schools.

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To assess the success of a collaboration, he said, "The best measurement would be, together we set goals early on, short and long term, and are we hitting them out of the park and meeting those goals."

But what if the agreement doesn't work?

"I don't want to come across as over-confident," Dillon said. "I can't imagine the way I work that it would happen, but if it did, I think there would be a tough conversation about us parting amicably. It's almost like after you burn the spaghetti, what do you do. Well, let's check the spaghetti at two minutes and four minutes and six minutes and eight minutes, so we can't possibly burn it."

Also, he said, "I think we have to make a commitment to be almost brutally honest from Day One" with progress being assessed after several weeks "while you cut me a little slack while I'm building relationships. In the fourth week, let's see if I'm making progress in the goals we set together. If for some reason I'm not you'd be honest enough to kick me in the shins to make dramatic shifts. The likelihood of us getting off the rails is small."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

What's next ...

The length of Peter Dillon's contract as Shaker Mountain School Union's part-time superintendent, salary, and other details will be worked out in negotiations.

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Representing Shaker Mountain: Hancock School Committee Chairwoman Patty Bishop, New Ashford School Committee Chairwoman Brenda Frye and Richmond School Committee Vice Chairman Dewey Wyatt.

Representing the shared-services subcommittee of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee: Stephen Bannon, Rich Dohoney and Rich Bradway.

Other members of the Shaker School Union attending Monday night's meeting: Melissa Leab and Mark Gaskill of Hancock; Lori Jayko of New Ashford; Jim Biancolo and Bianca Daigle of Richmond.

In their own words ...

"I'd like to put my focus on are kids, teachers, principals, parents, the community as a whole to be supported in ways so that the schools are doing what you want them to do."

— Berkshire Hills Regional School Superintendent Peter Dillon, on his potential appointment

"There's lots of talk in town about long-range planning and the future of the [Richmond] school, and I would like the school to stay open and be community-supported for 20 years, 50 years."

— Jim Biancolo, Richmond School Committee chairman and Shaker Mountain School Union Committee chairman

"We need to keep our budget responsible and affordable for the town yet provide everything we need to continue moving forward in the direction we've already started excelling in. We want to make sure to keep our school going in the nice direction we're seeing without exploding financially."

— Melissa Leab, Hancock School Committee member


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