Lenox Board of Selectman Ed Lane signs the compact with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — It started with the six Southern Berkshire school districts.
School officials were looking at the cost of operating each district while noticing student population dropping. They realized they couldn't do it alone.
It started with the six school districts spanning three towns. Now a collaborative has grown to include all 17 South County towns and has funding from the state and private sector to increase the sharing of services.
"The community has really rallied around this thing and it is unprecedented," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli on Tuesday, when officials from all of those entities joined Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito at Great Barrington Town Hall in signing community compacts with the same language to share services among the schools.
"We knew there was a problem and we needed to fix it."
The Baker administration launched the Community Compact program — contracts between the state and municipalities to adopt best practices — in January. The contracts ask municipalities to adopt one to three goals to accomplish in the next two years. The administration outlines a list of best practices municipalities can choose to focus on in education, energy and environment, financial management, housing and economic development, information technology, regionalization, and transportation. North Adams signed its compact on Friday; other North County towns earlier in the fall.
In Southern Berkshire, all 17 towns agreed to the same language focused on education. Coupled with the signing of the contract, the state has about $75,000 earmarked as well as pledged technical assistance through the Massachusetts Broadband Institution to help the school districts streamline IT services. That funding is coupled with close to $25,000 from local businesses.
"For all 17 of you to agree to a common mission and all six superintendents laid on top of that, it is just seismic. This has not been done in the history of our Commonwealth and it is really appropriate to where you are as a region today," Polito said. "It really is changing the course and the direction of the region."
The collaboration began last year to look at sharing an array of services so the IT portion is just the start of what is envisioned to be a growing mission to save resources.
"Now it is our turn to do our work. The challenge has been laid before us," Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen said, adding that the partnerships could be a model for communities all over the nation.
"The possibilities are really endless."
Some of the work has already begun among the towns, Ketchen said. For example, in January, Lenox and Lee will be sharing a building department. He said in municipal government is it getting increasingly difficult to keep with with technology and systems and joining forces is the best way to adapt.
"Our population is declining and yet as it declines, the world is getting more complex," Ketchen said. "We are 17 individual towns but it is one region and we need to work together for one solution."
As for the compact specifically, the state funding will help merge systems in the school departments. Secretary of Education Jim Peyser said it doesn't take consultants and studies to show that the demographics are changing and sharing services is the way to handle those changes.
"You are really wrapping your arms collectively around a very large issue," Polito said.
Baker said "we are a state of small towns" in that more than two-thirds of the 351 cities and towns have small populations. He emphasized the numerous members of his administration who have served as selectmen in the past as why the administration is committed to helping individual municipalities.
Gov. Charlie Baker speaks of the importance of municipal government and pledged the state's support through programs like the Community Compacts.
"We know how close you all are to the people you all serve and we know we cannot be a great state if we're not made up of great communities, that's a fact," Baker said.
"Our chance to be here today to celebrate beginning of a process with all of you is something we very much appreciate.
Pignatelli agrees saying "this administration has been very hands on. He sees the issues. He's been proactive. He's an outside of the box thinker," Pignatelli said.
Polito said to keep young families living and working in the Berkshires there needs to be "great jobs and great schools." This effort will help create the "great schools," and she said she is confident that those representative will show progress in the coming years.
"When you come into a building like this and room where you have all of the right people in place, you get a feel for the energy, the commitment, the real will to want to get things done," Polito said.
The signing of 17 compacts on Tuesday also crossed the 100th threshold for the program. So far 108 communities have signed compacts with the state, which opens up avenues for resources and technical assistance, and Polito says there are many more in the pipeline.
"There has been tremendous interest in the state," Polito said. "I'm so very happy and pleasantly surprised with the response."
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