Large and small school districts from Bozeman to Butte to Helena are considering banding together in a cooperative to save taxpayers’ money and improve education for kids.

Nearly 50 school superintendents and trustees met in Townsend last week to discuss creating a regional school cooperative. It could purchase paper in bulk, negotiate better deals for classroom computers and provide professional training for more teachers.

If school boards jump on board, the cooperative potentially could serve the region’s 70 school districts and 35,000 students, who represent a quarter of all Montana public school pupils.

A big incentive is that the 2011 Legislature made available $2 million in seed money for school co-ops.

Kirk Miller, Bozeman School District superintendent, and Andrea Johnson, Townsend school superintendent, said Friday the response from education leaders this week was enthusiastic.

“The whole goal here is to improve student learning for 35,000 students,” Miller said, and “to save money and improve our ability to deliver great services to kids.”

Johnson said it’s important for public schools to find ways to work more efficiently when “we continue to have shrinking budgets.”

If all 70 districts get on board, the regional co-op would be eligible for $400,000 or more to get started. April 1 is the deadline for school districts to agree on forming a regional cooperative, which would be called RESA4U, or the Regional Educational Service Agency “for you.” It would need a new governing board, and would possibly need a few employees who’d specialize in professional training and education technology.

School districts in the southwest Montana area were surveyed to find out what they need most, Miller said.

Their top three needs were bulk purchasing of school supplies; training teachers and staffs; and purchasing computer hardware and software, as well as training employees in how to use technology as an educational tool.

Already Bozeman and 20 other school districts have joined forces to get a better price on natural gas for heating buildings, Miller said. Their joint contract with a supplier brought the price down from around $5.50 to $4.90 per decatherm.

Another example of how a regional school co-op could save money is that the Bozeman district brings in national experts to train its staff on the latest education practices and issues, like the national common core standards that will be coming to Montana classrooms in the next few years, Miller said. If more school districts joined in to bring in the experts, that could lessen the cost to Bozeman schools and expand professional training to more schools and teachers.

Forty-four states are already using regional cooperatives, Miller said. It’s an idea he said he’s been promoting for 17 years, including his 14 years on the Montana Board of Public Education.

In the past, the idea didn’t get far, resisted partly because it came from the top down. This co-op effort has started at the grassroots, Miller said.

In 2009, school leaders from Bozeman, Belgrade, Manhattan, Monforton, Butte and Helena got together to form a Four Rivers group and brainstorm ways to “optimize resources,” Miller said. That was possible after the 2009 Legislature changed state law so that school boards could hold meetings outside their districts to meet with other school boards and share information.

In the 2011 Legislature, the Bozeman School Board and Trustee Gary Lusin spearheaded an effort to win passage of a new law allowing multi-school district cooperative agreements to share resources and increase efficiencies. It passed, and lawmakers liked it so much they put up $2 million to support the effort.

“The whole goal is how do we provide more services for kids, in cost-effective ways, in this tight economy,” Johnson said. “The potential is huge.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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