School finance expert: Rowe tuition too low

BUCKLAND — A school finance expert says state education money intended for Mohawk’s eight member towns is subsidizing Rowe’s high school tuition rate.

But any change in the regional agreement between Rowe and Mohawk’s eight member towns would have to be pursued by the towns themselves — not by the Mohawk Trail Regional School Committee.

“The regional agreement does hamstring the School Committee, with what we can do,” said Mohawk school board Chairman Robert Aeschback. He said the tuition agreement is between the towns, and that any change in the regional agreement would require annual town meeting approval in all of the member towns.

Addressing about two dozen town officials Thursday, municipal finance expert Mark D. Abrahams said Mohawk’s per-pupil costs in Fiscal Year 2011 were about $15,745 per pupil, if you excluded all state aid for education and regional transportation from the equation.

But Rowe’s tuition this year is $9,229 per pupil — partly because the 30-year-old regional district agreement with Rowe provides for a 10 percent tuition discount and because the calculation formula for per-pupil costs factors in about $3.2 million of state aid received for Mohawk’s member towns.

Rowe gets its own Chapter 70 education money from the state, but the percentage of that aid for secondary education is not factored into Mohawk’s cost-per-pupil figures.

Also, Mohawk’s agreement with Rowe doesn’t spell out how Rowe would share Mohawk’s building improvement costs. It says only that Rowe “may pay a portion” of Mohawk’s capital costs, as determined through negotiations. But Mohawk’s Aeschback said the school district has never negotiated any capital costs with Rowe.

“We have to educate children, but we can’t educate them under a tree,” remarked Buckland Finance Committee member Paula Consolo.

Rowe Finance Committee member Myra Carlow said that over the years, her town has donated money to the district, for such items that have included a technology specialist position, and after-school buses for students and a Spanish-language teacher. Former Mohawk business manager David Newell, a consultant hired by the Rowe selectmen last year, said Rowe’s cost per pupil is closer to $11,000, if the after-school bus and language teacher contribution is calculated.

Thirty years ago, Rowe was asked to voluntarily withdraw from Mohawk because the town’s wealthy tax base — from both the former Yankee Rowe nuclear plant and the Bear Swamp hydroelectric facility — skewed Mohawk’s demographics and kept the rural district from getting more state aid. At the time, the amount of state aid was determined by the tax valuations of the school district communities, and Rowe, with the fewest number of students, carried half the tax value of the entire school district, according to Newell.

The 10 percent tuition discount for Rowe was to compensate the town for relinquishing its voting powers in the Mohawk district.

Abrahams said the formula used to calculate Rowe’s tuition was approved in Mohawk’s regional agreement with Rowe about 12 years before the state’s Education Reform Act of 1993 changed the way state funding for education was calculated.

The Mohawk School Committee hired Abrahams to review the tuition calculation formula and to make recommendations after being asked for such a review by town officials.

When asked how a higher Rowe tuition would compare to those of other districts, Aeschback said Mohawk lacks “economy of scale” because its enrollment is declining. He said the district’s schools have enough building capacity to house 2,500 students. But by the next school year, enrollment is projected to be less than 1,000 students.

Board member Kirby “Lark” Thwing said all discussion of closing one of the under-used school buildings has been difficult, since it would require a vote of all eight towns. He said he hoped that Rowe would consider using one of the district’s elementary schools, since its own was destroyed by fire last summer.

Thwing said the Mohawk Municipal Advisory Committee (MMAC), composed of selectmen and finance committee members, would be the appropriate board to discuss changes in the regional agreement.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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