BUCKLAND — The chairman of the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition has gone to state officials with a new idea: Could rural school districts share business services — payroll, accounting, bookkeeping — to create “economies of scale” and save money?
Mohawk Trail Regional School District Superintendent Michael Buoniconti made several trips to Boston this month, meeting with the state secretary of education, the state education commissioner and state legislators about a pilot proposal for a “Massachusetts School Services Authority.” It would function somewhat like the Massachusetts School Building Authority, but would be an organization for sharing “central office” services including accounting, payroll, bookkeeping — “the kinds of things that don’t have to be done in the local office ... services that districts can no longer afford.” Buoniconti said.
He pointed out that this change would reduce school staffing, along with the health and retirement benefits that come with school employment and post-employment benefits. “When people retire from a school district, you incur long-time expenses,” he said.
In separate meetings, Buoniconti talked about funding issues and the need for rural school aid with the Secretary of Education James Peyser and with the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester. In March, he also testified before the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee at the University of Massachusetts, advocating for rural schools.
The outcome was that education officials have asked him for a written proposal that supports the feasibility of his idea. Buoniconti said he has asked other superintendents within the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition to help write the proposal and produce “proof of concept” evidence for it.
“We need to show that, if this is going to work, it’s got to work for people on Cape Cod as well as in western Massachusetts,” he said.
When asked if it would work in Boston as well, Buoniconti said, in the short term, he’s focusing on the rural school districts that need the most help, “so we could save money in the next year’s budget.” But eventually, he said, “this could be useful for all.”
Unlike school closings and consolidations, where residents may be emotionally attached to their town schools and teachers, “People just don’t have that heartfelt connection to central office,” says Buoniconti. As the Mohawk district’s superintendent for a dozen years, he has weathered stormy debates about possible school closures and hears grumbles about central office costs almost every year at annual town meetings.
In addition, Buoniconti would like to form a Rural Education Research Center. He has asked to meet with the University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan to see if this research center could be based on the UMass Amherst campus.
If possible, the Rural School Coalition would want the school business services collaborative pilot to be run at the research center. The purpose of the research center would be to identify and promote best practices to reduce school costs.
Also, Gov. Charlie Baker’s Workforce Skills Cabinet has started a new regional planning initiative, and Buoniconti and Greenfield Community College President Robert Pura are to represent education in the designated Pioneer Valley Region. “They’re asking us to create regional economic plans — a blueprint for economic development, to meet the job needs of the region.”
In its brochure, the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition says that 100,000 students attend rural public schools, and half those students are in school systems facing “severe fiscal crisis.”
Besides arguing for rural aid, the group wants to create operational efficiencies by sharing services. Other services that rural school systems could eventually share might be technology, food services and transportation.