May schools share space?
State gives permission on case-by-case basis
Buckland Shelburne Elementary School Principal Joanne Giguere in an extra classroom being used as a computer lab.
Seniors have a tight fit at the Senior Center of Shelburne Falls.
Submitted photo/Cathy Buntin
With dwindling enrollments, both Frontier and Mohawk Trail regional school districts are exploring possible town use of unused school space, as a way to offset operating costs. State law and education officials that govern how schools can be used allow alternate uses, but with conditions.
Mohawk has already seen enrollment within its six-school system drop by roughly 40 percent over the past 12 years. According to state enrollment reports, the school district had 1,633 students in the 2001-2002 academic year. This year’s enrollment total was 959.
During the past decade, school and town officials discussed closing school buildings, to consolidate its grade school students into fewer structures. But Mohawk’s regional agreement says that closing any school requires a “yes” vote from all of the eight school communities at an annual town meeting — and no one believes any town will support closing its own school.
Currently, the Heath Elementary School has fewer than 10 pupils in each grade except fifth grade, which has 16. Sanderson Academy in Ashfield has between 11 to 21 children per grade level; Colrain Central has from 11 to 21 children per grade; and Mohawk Trail Regional School now has 489 students, which includes middle and high schools.
By comparison, Frontier Regional School has seen its student enrollment drop by 100 over the past five years, with the loss of about 50 students from Sunderland between 2008 to 2012, and another 38-student decrease of Whately students. And school officials project that the district and its four feeder elementary schools will see an enrollment decline of another 105 students over the next decade.
As town officials in both districts question assessment increases when enrollment is dropping, both school systems are considering ways to share their unused classroom spaces with member towns that need space for senior centers, libraries, town record storage and other municipal departments.
Both districts now have long-range planning committees that have been exploring dual use of school buildings — to benefit both the school district and the towns it serves.
The idea of converting unused classroom space into either something else to benefit the community — or rental property to offset school operations is nothing new, but it is uncommon, says Lauren Greene, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“From time to time, the (Education) Commissioner reviews and approves city/town proposals to rent or lease excess building space,” she said. “The local school committee and commissioner must approve such a request. The department reviews the proposal, specifically why the district no longer needs the space, their plan for the area, the amount of space being rented/leased, and the potential impact on the school.”
When asked if such space-sharing is only permitted for nonprofit agencies or whether it could include commercial ventures, Greene said each request is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. She said the requesting town or school system should present the education department with a comprehensive plan for what they want to do with the unused space and where in the building is situated. She said the key criteria is that it “not disrupt the education of the students.”
“The town or school needs to lay out a firm plan that makes sense with what goes on at the school, on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “My understanding is, that (state education officials) really don’t get that many requests,” she added.
State law says that a town, with school committee approval, may rent or lease any school building not in use. It can also lease extra space in a used school building for public, nonprofit or for-profit businesses, provided that the business doesn’t interfere with the school. Any lease for the space cannot be for longer than 10 years. If rent money is paid, state law requires that it be set aside to be used by the school committee to offset costs of maintaining the rental space. Any balance remaining either goes back into the general fund of the town, or, with the town’s permission, is put into a fund for school upkeep and maintenance.
School space sharing is not new. In the late 1990s, the Community Health Center of Franklin County had a satellite clinic inside the Mohawk Trail Regional School, which served uninsured and under-insured West County residents living in the nine towns served by the high school, for about 10 years. It did not pay rent, but used the school to serve the community.
The Mary Lyon Foundation, which moved into a spacious empty classroom at the Buckland Shelburne Elementary School, is another example of space sharing that provides a mutual benefit. Mary Lyon doesn’t pay rent, but it raises money each year for student scholarships, mini-grants for teaching programs, collects donations of goods listed on schools’ “wish lists,” and helps school families in need.
Joseph Judd, a Shelburne selectman and the chairman of Mohawk’s Long Range Planning Committee, said selectmen in Mohawk member towns have been discussing using surplus space within the schools for several years. “This is one of the issues that is clearly a challenge to financial sustainability,” he said. “We have many buildings and not many students.”
Judd pointed out that the three-town Senior Center in Shelburne Falls is cramped for space. If that senior center could be moved into an empty wing of the Buckland Shelburne School, for instance, Ashfield, Buckland and Shelburne could save on rent money.
Shelburne Falls senior center Director Cathy Buntin said the senior center is currently researching other locations, and that unused school space is among the options under consideration. “It would be timely to meet with the Mohawk administrator, to look at possible available spaces, to see if they would meet our needs,” she said.
You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 277
(Editor’s note: Some information in this story has changed from an earlier edition)