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Private study: Rowe School spending highest in state

ROWE — A privately funded study says this town of 400 residents spends at least $41,000 per local student on elementary school education — compared to the statewide average of $13,636.

The author of the study, education consultant James A. Mullevey, says Rowe could save about $1 million a year if it sent elementary school children to another school, instead of building and running a school of its own to replace one destroyed by fire.

Brian Donelson, a 35-year town resident and retired business owner, hired Mullevey to study Rowe’s school spending last May, after the town voted to build a $6.9 million new school.

Ground has already been broken for the new building, which is to be paid for entirely with insurance money. But Donelson thinks it’s not too late to convert the proposed school building into a community center — with an auditorium, preschool classrooms, community meeting rooms and to serve other functions to be determined by residents. He hopes this study will lead the town to reconsider its decision to build a school.

It isn’t the building cost that worries Donelson — it’s the long-range costs to operate and staff an elementary school in a town where there are fewer than 40 elementary-age kids — and the number of school-age children seems to be dropping.

“I really want everybody to understand what it really costs to run that school,” he said.

Donelson said no one has even done a demographic study, to see how many kids from Rowe are likely to go to elementary school in the next five to 10 years. “Nobody wants to do the study — because nobody wants to know the answer,” he remarked. “I think the kids would be better off in a place with more children.”

Before the Rowe School fire in August 2012, the elementary school had 40 Rowe children and 29 School Choice students from neighboring towns. Since Rowe and Heath stopped educating both towns’ children at Rowe School, Rowe has relied on School Choice enrollment to fill its classrooms.

“Why would any town want to basically be in the education business?” for out-of-towners, asks Donelson. “We’re building a school so that they can attract students from other towns. They’re spending $40,000 per student but getting $5,000 per (School Choice) student from other towns,” Donelson said of the money paid by the sending school districts. “That’s not a good business model.”

Donelson, who is also author of two histories about local railroads and the building of the Hoosac Tunnel, started doing his own research on Rowe’s spending for education. “Then, I decided this work should be done by a professional,” he said.

Mullevey is a retired school administrator, principal and teacher who worked as a school administrator with Greenfield Public Schools from 2009 to 2011. According to his resume, Mullevey was New Jersey’s “Administrator of the Year,” in 2006, when he headed the top-ranked 2,300-student Marlboro High School. He was either the principal or the chief school administrator for five school districts, from 1972 to 2007.

Mullevey based his cost calculations on data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Department of Revenue, the Mohawk-Hawlemont-Rowe central office, and from other sources.

Among his key findings are:

Rowe’s cost per student is about three times higher than the state average. In Fiscal Year 2012, the last year before the school fire, the town’s appropriation for the school was $1.4 million and the total expense, partly offset by state funds and grants, was $1.65 million. If that spending is divided only by the number of Rowe children in the school, the cost comes to about $41,259 per student. If the entire spending amount were to be divided by all 69 school children — School Choice and town children — the per-pupil spending comes out to about $24,000 per student. But Rowe only gets $5,000 per School Choice student from the sending schools, so the town is subsidizing the education of each School Choice child by at least $19,000 per year.

By comparison, day-student tuition and fees at private Bement School in Deerfield, for Grades 1 through 5, range from $16,055 to $17,150.

In contrast to its elementary school spending, Rowe spends an average of $12,127 per high school student in tuition to the Mohawk Trail Regional School or the Franklin County Technical School. Mullevey said secondary education is generally more costly than elementary education.

Additional school spending shows up in town meeting warrant articles. Because the school is considered a town department, health insurance benefits and retirement pensions for school employees are customarily listed in town budget line items — not as part of the printed school budget. However these expenses — school employee benefits and costs for School Choice and charter schools — are reported to the state Department of Education. Mullevey said actual expenditures from appropriations reported to the Department of Education for FY 2012 were $538,113 above the amount listed in the school budget proposal.

Operating costs have steadily risen since Rowe’s 1995 split with Heath. When Heath tuitioned its children to the Rowe Elementary School, Rowe’s spending was closer to the net-school spending amount required by the state. Now Rowe is spending almost double what it’s required to spend by the state.

Rowe spends four times more per capita on education than surrounding Mohawk towns. Money spent on public education in Rowe averages $8,000 per resident in this town of 400 people. Most of the other hilltowns spend around $2,000 per resident in their respective towns.

High property values

Rowe’s residential property value totals about $53 million; but the commercial/industrial/personal property values of the utility companies here comes to $251 million. A single taxpayer — Brookfield Renewable Energy Inc. of Canada, which owns the Bear Swamp hydroelectric facility — currently pays about 88 percent of the town’s commercial/industrial property values. These taxes pay for about 80 percent of the town’s general fund expenditures, according to Mullevey and Donelson. Out of the $1.4 million appropriated to operate the elementary school in 2012, about $1.1 million came from Brookfield, $129,440 (or 9 percent) came from residents’ taxes, and $152,450 (11 percent) came from other commercial/industrial and personal property taxes.

“If it wasn’t for Brookfield, Rowe wouldn’t even be able to consider operating a school,” said Donelson.

The study points out that the proposed Rowe Elementary School is designed to serve 100 students, and Rowe has between 25 to 35 school-age children.

Tuition option

If Rowe were to pay a tuition of roughly $12,000 per student to either the Heath Elementary or the Hawlemont Regional school, it would save about $1 million a year, according to the Mullevey study.

Next year’s Rowe Elementary School budget proposal is for about $1.5 million. The study calculates that the town would spend about $360,000 on student tuition, $40,000 for school bus transportation of 30 children, and $100,000 for a preschool budget, with preschool to take place at what would become a community center, where the school building construction site is now.

Donelson said he is willing to email a copy of the study to those requesting it. His email is:

bdonelson11@verizon.net

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

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