Editorial: Could a shared office ease school district financial woes?

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Faced with the prospect of continued tight finances and declining enrollment, the Pioneer Valley Regional School District plans to explore the possibility of sharing a central office staff with another school system. This isn’t the type of change that any of the county’s towns or school districts likes to contemplate, but fiscal necessity is pushing Pioneer’s school leaders in that direction.

In its first meeting to discuss replacing Superintendent Ruth Miller, who leaves this summer, the search committee decided to scope out the possibility of sharing central office staff with another district. The vote was unanimous, which tells you something about how much pressure the district feels to stay afloat. Historically, the towns of Franklin County have preferred to maintain as much direct control as possible over their schools, especially elementary schools. Regionalizing beyond the current level has always been seen as bringing few benefits.

Miller’s departure itself speaks to the unpleasant prospects facing the four-town school system, which is experiencing declining enrollment and rising costs. When announcing her decision to leave Pioneer after her initial three-year contract expires, Miller implied she hadn’t come on board to preside over cuts to staff and programs, which has been the direction of late.

The subcommittee overwhelmingly agreed Thursday that the district should explore a shared superintendent and central office staff arrangement on an interim basis while considering opportunities for sharing central office staff long-term. An interim deal would give them a chance to see how such a sharing arrangement might work.

Committee members will reach out to other nearby districts to gauge interest in sharing superintendents, business managers or other services. The districts include Frontier Regional School District, the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District, the Gill-Montague Regional School District, Franklin County Technical School, the Mohawk Trail Regional School District and Greenfield School Department.

There is some precedent here. Some of the smallest towns have shared fire chiefs or police chiefs over the years.

Bernardston Selectman Robert Raymond said local school districts haven’t sought shared services before because “nobody wants to give up their autonomy,” but he expressed hope that doing so would allow for some financial relief. We know the first part is true — not just for Northfield, Bernardston, Leyden and Warwick, but across Franklin County and the North Quabbin region. We’ll have to see if sharing central staff is even feasible from a management point of view and if the savings will be worth the trouble.

“I don’t think the same old model is what we need right now,” School Committee member William Wahlstrom agreed.

Pioneer Valley school officials are wise to explore sharing services as a way to save money and increase efficiency. If the approach works out, it could leave more dollars in the bank to perform the district's essential function: preparing students for their bright futures.