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Southern Berkshire Schools Joining Forces

Jim Levulis

Six school districts in Berkshire County, Mass. have agreed to share services in hopes of improving performance and saving money.The memorandum of agreement was signed Friday by the superintendents and school committee chairs of Berkshire Hills Regional School District, Farmington River Regional School District, Lee Public Schools, Lenox Public Schools, Richmond Consolidated Schools and Southern Berkshire Regional School District. As the governing body of their respective schools, Select Board chairs from Lee, Lenox and Richmond also signed off. Peter Dillon is the superintendent of schools for Berkshire Hills, which includes the towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.

“At the end of the day we all want the same stuff,” Dillon said. “We all want a really high quality education for our kids and we want to provide that in a way that’s reasonable to taxpayers. So by coming together we hope we can do both of those.”

Recognizing a regional decline in enrollment and shrinking budgets, school leaders across the Northeast have been looking at areas where consolidation and shared services could bring benefits. Barbara Ripa is superintendent of Richmond Consolidated Schools.

“Many of us would like to have curriculum directors,” Ripa said. “Those positions were cut from our budgets years ago when we had to make cuts. We also would like IT people, but again budgets have been very limiting. If we put our funds and what we can afford together can we afford people with expertise in these areas and then provide services to more of our children, yes we can.”

Don Fitzgerald, chair of the Lenox School Committee, says the agreement strikes a balance as it does not mean complete regionalization or staying totally independent.

“Here’s an opportunity for the six of us to take the bull by the horns and create a model that works for us where we benefit,” Fitzgerald said. “Not at the state’s direction for what they think is good for us, but we get to determine what’s truly good for us as individual towns and each of our students and their education.”

Each district will chip in $350 to hire a grant writer who will submit an application to Governor Deval Patrick by October 10 asking for a one-year, $300,000 grant to launch the work of what is now known as the Southern Berkshire Shared Services Project team. State Representative Smitty Pignatelli says based on meetings he’s had with them, the state’s secretaries of education and administration and finance are excited about the effort’s prospects; it would cover an area of some 500 square miles.

“We’re doing something very special, very unique,” Pignatelli said. “An unbelievably opportunity, their words to be a template for statewide educational policy. If we can make it work here in the very rural part of Massachusetts, it can work in many other places.”

Pignatelli expects to receive the grant as early as November and certainly before Patrick leaves office in January. Some of the schools have had joint sports teams and shared training for years. With a focus of keeping each school’s identity, shared services being considered include professional development, English language learner coordination and food services.

“No one is going to lose their job with this,” Pignatelli said. “There’s not going to be millions of dollars of savings. Some of the topics we’re going to tackle aren’t the sexiest topics when it comes to school budgets, but they’re very important steps to take. I believe over time at the end of day it’s about the quality of the education for the kids in all of our school districts. If we can enhance that and try to save some taxpayer dollars, I think that’s the ultimate goal. I think we can do that by being in control of our future.”

Ripa says the districts expect to continue the grant writer position in hopes that it will be self-sustaining.

“If we all work together, we’re writing grants for 4,000 children, instead of 150 or 450 or 800,” Ripa said. “We’re hoping it will be more effective.”

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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