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Rural school communities air grievances at public forum

  • Adam Hinds discussing financial hardships of rural schools at Mohawk. Recorder staff/Diane Broncaccio



Recorder Staff
Wednesday, March 14, 2018

BUCKLAND — Per-pupil spending in the state’s rural school districts increased by about 31 percent over the past decade, compared to 25 percent in non-rural districts.

And rural districts spend 50 percent more per pupil on busing than other districts across the state.

Financial inequities like that were among findings from a new report on the plight of rural school systems discussed this week by local legislators, a state education official and local leaders.

At least 100 people came to a Public Forum on the Fiscal Conditions Challenging Rural School Districts in Massachusetts Monday night, and weighed in on the problems their towns face.

State Sen. Adam Hinds said 54 rural school districts — comprising an area the size of Rhode Island — lost about 14 percent of their enrollment (about 4,000 students) over the past decade.

According to the report, per-pupil spending in rural districts averages $18,678 per student, compared to $16,692 in non-rural districts.

The report from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education confirms what Franklin County area school superintendents have said for years: Enrollment is dropping, but per-pupil costs are rising; rural districts spend 50 percent more per-pupil on transportation costs than other districts across the state; and, as enrollment declines, some districts are relying more on School Choice for revenue to support operating costs.

Rob O’Donnell, director of school finance for the state, said Massachusetts doesn’t have a definition of “rural schools” — specific measurements to designate such a category. But, for this report, the state defined “rural” school districts as those that have fewer than 21 students per square mile, even though Mohawk and other districts have even fewer than 10 students per square mile. By that definition, the report determined 54 rural school districts statewide had a combined enrollment of 26,219 students — or 2.9 percent of statewide enrollment in public schools. In contrast, he said, other state school districts have an average student density of 60 students per square-mile.

School staffing in rural districts has dropped by about 11 percent over the last decade, he said, but “fixed staffing levels” for certified teachers in low-enrollment classrooms means there are more teachers and aides per 100 students in rural schools than there are in urban and suburban school districts. O’Donnell said health insurance costs have been rising, but this disproportionately affects rural districts with high teacher to student ratios.

Also, some low-enrollment schools are relying more on School Choice to fill vacant classroom seats, with $5,000 coming in per student — which doesn’t come close to covering per-pupil costs for the district. About 52 percent of Petersham’s students are School Choice; Rowe School Choice students make up 45 percent of enrollment. Also, about 30 percent of Hawlemont, Mahar and Whately’s students are School Choice enrollees. O’Donnell warned against adding staff to accommodate School Choice students.

O’Donnell said the state has kept its promise to fully reimburse regional transportation costs only once in the last few decades. He said failure for full reimbursement disproportionately hurts rural districts with the largest miles to cover.

Between fiscal years 2008 and 2017, per-pupil transportation spending in rural schools grew by 36 percent — from $643 per pupil to $878 per pupil. Across the rest of the state, transportation costs rose from $431 per pupil to $587 per pupil.

O’Donnell said “hold harmless” provisions of Chapter 70 state aid for education has staved-off more devastation to rural schools, by providing the same level of aid despite the loss of student enrollment.

Solutions

Solutions proposed in the report include more school regionalization, with regional “bonus aid” as an incentive, encouraging shared superintendent unions and shared business services.

Audience response

Questions and comments from the audience caused Monday’s event to go longer than planned.

Michael Naughton of Montague said the state’s minimum required contribution formula makes it possible for some wealthy communities to pay a smaller percentage of their relative wealth (based on property values and per-capita income) than what rural, poor towns pay. If every community paid according to its ability, he said, there would be more money for the poorer school systems.

“It seems that (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) should take a look at it,” said Leverett Selectman Peter D’Errico, referring to the local contribution formula that calculates the minimum towns must spend on education. “It’s a Rube Goldberg invention,” he said of the formula.

Shelburne Finance Committee Chairman Leo Ojala pointed out that half the population is over the age of 55 in some of the towns in the Mohawk Trail Regional School District. He said those towns do not have the wealth of a growing population of young professionals that a place like Cambridge may have.

Finance Committee Chairman Dawn Scaparotti of Goshen noted nine out of the 11 authors of the rural schools report were from wealthy cities in eastern Massachusetts, including Cambridge, Lexington and Brookline. She said those were cities with annual budgets of $85 million or more. “What would they know about the financial struggles of a town of 2,000, with a $3 million budget?” she asked. “The conclusion of those of us in this room is, we need more money. Fundamentally, you have to understand what a community on a $3 million budget has to do to provide $1.5 million to the schools.”

“We need a stronger voice,” she said.

Scaparotti said most of the local, rural towns spend between 50 to 54 percent of their annual budget on education. D’Errico, the Leverett Selectman, said 70 percent of his town’s taxes go to the schools.

Busing costs

There was much discussion on school transportation costs. The audience told Hinds that, besides buses that carry relatively few students great distances, there is only one local school bus company to bid on transportation contracts.

Ben Tafoya, director of division of local mandates for the state Auditor’s Office, was there to listen and take notes. After the meeting, he told Hinds that special education transportation reimbursement is not offered by the state. He said if special education transportation were factored in, the state is only paying about 43 percent reimbursement for all transportation that the regional school district provides.

“Rural districts now spend $18,678 per in-district student, up from $14,224 in fiscal year 2008,” the report states. In contrast, per-pupil costs in non-rural districts rose from an average of $13,138 in 2008 to $16,692 now.

The Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition, headed by Mohawk and Hawlemont Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, had proposed a $9.5 million rural aid plan that would provide up to $300 per student for schools in the most sparsely populated school districts. With fewer than 10 students per mile living in member towns, Mohawk, Franklin County Technical, Frontier, Pioneer Valley and Mahar regional schools would receive $300 per student. Districts with between 10 to 20 students per mile — including Athol-Royalston, Deerfield, Orange and Quabbin — would receive about $200 per student.

When asked if a rural school aid bill has yet been filed, Hinds said, “We’re going to file the amendment for a yet-to-be-determined amount.”

If voters approve the so-called “Millionaire’s Tax” — the Massachusetts Income Tax for Education and Transportation Initiative — in November, the additional 4 percent tax on incomes above $1 million would be used for public education, roads, bridges and public transportation. Proponents believe it would bring in about $1.9 billion in new revenue annually. But Hinds also pointed out there are tax cuts on the state ballot, which could mean less money for schools.