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School Choice: Is it worth it for Frontier?

Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield.
(Recorder file/Paul Franz)

Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield. (Recorder file/Paul Franz)

SOUTH DEERFIELD — Since the early 1990s, Frontier Regional School and its feeder schools have allowed out-of-town students to enroll. But now, school leaders are questioning whether participating in the School Choice program is really cost effective.

“We’re in the beginning stages of a discussion on School Choice,” Superintendent Martha Barrett said at a recent meeting. “Is it enhancing our educational experience or detracting from it? I do think it’s worth examining it.”

Several Deerfield selectmen and Finance Committee members raised the question Tuesday night at a joint budget meeting with the Deerfield Elementary School Committee.

No decisions on School Choice have been made, but if the district decided to leave the program, it would continue to educate the out-of-district students already in the system.

If a district takes in too many out-of-district students and requires an additional teacher and other administrative costs as a result, is it cost effective? Barrett asked. At what point do the economies of scale tip the wrong way?

“When we started in the early 1990s, most schools got two to three kids,” Barrett said. “It was a nice pot of money and it didn’t impact the budget negatively. It allowed the schools to buy things they wouldn’t have money for. But then it became a real budget number.”

For each out-of-town student accepted into the district, Frontier receives $5,000 from the state. Likewise, for each student who goes outside the district, that money follows them.

For years, Frontier has come out ahead and used the extra money to offset the budget. This year, Frontier expects a net income of $121,427. The Frontier School Committee has proposed using the money to pay for two instructional assistants for $39,944 and 1.5 teachers for $78,009.

The Deerfield Elementary School Committee proposed using its $132,774 in School Choice funds for the strings program, special education aides, reading tutors, a math specialist and speech aides.

The Conway Grammar School Committee has proposed using $26,474 in Choice money for out-of-district tuitions and aides.

The Whately Elementary School Committee has proposed using its $228,694 for special education aides, an art teacher, strings teacher, summer tuitions, and psychologist services.

The Sunderland Elementary School Committee has proposed using its $29,611 for three teacher salaries, five instructional assistants, Spanish instruction, summer special education programming and part of a strings teacher salary.

The question of whether Frontier can continue to pay to educate new out-of-town students is one it has to answer on its own, school leaders said. School Choice is largely a western Massachusetts phenomenon. Few students in the eastern part of the state participate and the state Legislature is unlikely to take up the issue, Barrett said.

The school district is examining School Choice funding in light of the reduction in residential “native” population within the four towns.

According to a study of enrollment of the next 10 years conducted by the New England School Development Council, Frontier enrollment is projected to decrease by 140 students in the next decade. Enrollment at the Conway Grammar School is projected to decrease by 41 students. Deerfield Elementary School can expect 108 fewer students. Sunderland Elementary School can expect 99 fewer students. Whately, however, would only decline by two students.

“We have a good reputation,” said Barrett. “We have a high graduation rate. We’re able to offer a variety of courses that maybe smaller schools can’t. Those facts are appealing to families.”

There are 1,583 students in the five schools.

This year, 311 students “choiced in” to Frontier and the four Union 38 elementary schools — Deerfield, Whately, Conway and Sunderland.

Gill-Montague Regional School students and Greenfield School Department students make up the bulk of School Choice students.

This year, 104 students came from Greenfield and 91 students came from Gill-Montague. Frontier and Deerfield Elementary take in most of these students.

Of 617 Frontier students, 128 are School Choice imports. At the same time, 74 Frontier students left for other districts.

The breakdown for Choice students are:

Of 444 students at Deerfield Elementary school, 89 students are Choice students. Eleven students left the school district for another district, but three of those students went to Sunderland and six went to Whately.

Of 174 students at the Conway Grammar School, 20 “choiced in.” This year, five town students chose to go elsewhere.

Of 206 students at Sunderland Elementary School, 33 are Choice students. This year, 17 residents chose to leave the district for Deerfield, Hadley, Hatfield and Whately.

Of 142 students at Whately Elementary School, 41 are Choice students. This year, 12 students chose schools outside the district and attended Conway, Deerfield and Hatfield schools.

The whole concept of School Choice ought to be looked at and eliminated.

It's about time this was looked at more closely!

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