Six South County school districts seek grant to share resources

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LENOX -- Six local school districts are seeking a $300,000 state grant, money to be spent on determining what services, programs and administrators they could share to better educate their students.

Lee and Lenox public schools, Richmond Consolidated School and Berkshire Hills, Farmington River and Southern Berkshire regional school districts have until Oct. 10 to file a joint application with the governor's Executive Office of Administrative and Finance. If approved, the Community Innovative Challenge grant will fund the Southern Berkshire Shared Services Project aimed at increasing the financial and educational efficiency within the six school systems.

School officials are confident the Patrick Administration -- expected to rule on the funding request by Election Day -- will look favorably upon the rarity of six school districts working as one.

"Collectively we represent 4,000 students," said Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon. "If I am [the state], the return on my investment will be stronger with a large group."

"If we band together, our strength in numbers will help us accomplish our goals," added Lenox School Committee Chairman Don Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald and Dillon spoke to local media, following Friday's meeting of the school superintendents and school committee chairs representing the six districts. They gathered at Lenox Town Hall to finalize plans for hiring a grant writer, costing $2,000, to prepare the application, since the six school districts have signed a memorandum of agreement outlining how they will proceed under the Shared Services Project.

School officials said areas to be explored -- but not limited too -- are curriculum director, special education, food service and grants writing.

The collaborative effort isn't about regionalization or immediate staff reductions, but finding ways to stretch taxpayers' dollars for public education, according to state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli.

"Anyone who thinks we're saving millions out of the gate is mistaken," said the Lenox Democrat. "But over time, a collaboration or consolidation will save money -- it's not about anyone losing their job."

The 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 to include regional school districts, along with the individual town school systems -- the two most common entities for public education in Massachusetts.

"With changes in demographics and finances in recent years, maybe neither model works. We need to create a model that works for us," noted Carl Stewart, chairman of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee.

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.

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A single school boss for multiple school districts could also be explored under the Shared Services Project, Lee Interim Superintendent Alfred Skrocki has 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

To reach Dick Lindsay:

rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,

or (413) 496-6233


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