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Statewide network proposed for educational collaboratives

There may be changes coming soon for the state’s 26 education collaboratives — public entities that provide services and programs for multiple school districts.

A statewide network is being proposed that would link every school district in the state with at least one collaborative so that towns could receive services, like special education and professional development, for less money and at higher quality.

At the same time, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would use collaboratives to roll out news or to help implement statewide programs. A law passed last year gave the state more oversight of education collaboratives and state officials have the power to effectively shut down collaboratives that aren’t meeting quality standards or using money wisely.

The changes were proposed last week by a commission charged with exploring the role collaboratives play in the state’s education system. Legislation and state regulations would have to follow suit in order for changes to occur.

All Franklin County towns are affiliated with the Northampton-based Collaborative for Educational Services, and these relationships won’t be affected by the proposed changes, said Executive Director Joan Schuman.

The Collaborative for Educational Services, which for decades had been known as the Hampshire Educational Collaborative, took on all public Franklin County school districts four years ago. At the time, there had been talk of consolidating the county’s school systems, said Schuman.

But the collaborative structure offered a better solution, allowing member districts to continue operating on their own while also receiving specialized services and training they wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.

The collaborative works for 20 Franklin and Hampshire County towns — who govern the entity and pay annual membership fees and for specific services. Money from the member towns makes up about one-quarter of the collaborative’s revenue, with most of the other money coming through grants or outside contracts.

But while all Franklin County public school districts can access this wide range of services, some collaboratives in the eastern part of the state are smaller or focus only on special education.

Some school districts in the state affiliate themselves with multiple collaboratives for different services. Others, particularly in Berkshire County or in the region between Springfield and Worcester, have no affiliation at all.

It’s for this reason that the state has been unable to use collaboratives to effectively relay information to school districts, said Rep. Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley), co-chair of the state’s joint committee on education and co-leader of the special commission investigating collaboratives.

“Right now, it’s a haphazard system,” she said. State officials support this new proposal because it “really makes their job easier in terms of rolling out new initiatives and training for current initiatives.”

Schuman supports a statewide network and has no problem with providing annual reports and financial audits to the state and member towns. But she is concerned that the new state mandates will hurt the flexibility that helped make the Collaborative for Educational Services so successful.

And, added Schuman, “if the state wants us to do its work, they should pay us for it.”

The state contracts with the collaborative to provide services for incarcerated youth, for instance, but would not otherwise allocate money to collaboratives.

The commission’s report doesn’t address state allotments to collaboratives, although Peisch said that this could be discussed during the next budget cycle.

The proposal, which would be carried out through new legislation this fall, recommends that the state should be divided into six regions. Districts would be assigned to collaboratives in that region.

One collaborative from each region would serve as a liaison between the state and local school districts. Collaboratives could also be selected to lead the rollout of new state initiatives.

Whether one of the regions would focus only on the Pioneer Valley or all of western Massachusetts is unclear. Schuman said that the Collaborative for Educational Services already works well with Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative, which serves seven communities surrounding Springfield. But both collaboratives are more concerned with the Berkshires, which once had a collaborative but no longer does.

Other recommendations in the proposal would allow collaboratives to voluntarily consolidate. Collaboratives would be allowed to continue serving noneducation products, like bulk purchasing. And ones that already provide services for disabled adults over 22 would be allowed to continue.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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