‘The beginning of the answer’: Superintendents weigh in on report calling for $60M for rural schools



Staff Writer
Published: 7/18/2022 5:58:39 PM
Modified: 7/18/2022 5:58:15 PM

Following last week’s Special Commission on Rural School Districts’ hearing where commissioners called for at least a $60 million increase in funding for rural schools, Franklin County superintendents and legislators are saying the money — if the state follows the group’s recommendations — would alleviate the funding crunch area districts are facing.

The commission’s recommended $60 million increase would be a substantial boost from the $4 million in rural school aid allocated in the state’s General Appropriations Act for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The commission included representatives from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, among other organizations. It was co-chaired by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland.

The $4 million in fiscal year 2022 rural aid, however, did not make it very far because it was divvied up among 67 districts across Massachusetts that were eligible for it.

“I think one of the strongest aspects of this report is the data that is contained in it, that really tells the story of the very big challenges we’re facing in rural communities,” Blais commented. “We spent a lot of time developing that information so individuals around the commonwealth who are reading the report can begin to understand what our constituents are living with every single day.”

For the Union 38 and Frontier Regional school districts, Superintendent Darius Modestow said an increase in rural school aid would be greatly helpful.

“That actual amount of money would be game-changing for our schools and communities,” Modestow said. “I thought it was great the commission brought a spotlight on the inequities to rural communities.”

Sheryl Stanton, superintendent of the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts, said the commission’s findings were welcomed and this can hopefully be a wake-up call for state officials who might not realize what the state of education in western Massachusetts is.

“We’re obviously very pleased with the research and the data in the report that’s outlining all the critical issues facing particularly rural schools and schools with small or declining enrollment,” Stanton said. “I think it’s critical the report clearly identified the need, and I don’t know if, up until this point, if there was a uniform understanding of what the conditions are and what that means in funding education for students in rural districts.”

Currently, Modestow said, rural school aid has “not been a difference-maker” for the Union 38 and Frontier schools. The five schools in the districts received a combined $119,926.73 in aid for FY22, according to a state spreadsheet. This funding, while appreciated, is not enough, Modestow said, because it does not cover costs like transportation — for example, the state funded $287,000 of Frontier’s $432,000 in regional transportation costs.

“In FY23, regional transportation is expected to be reduced,” Modestow said, adding that the state is only shifting money around. “Frontier is projected to receive only $160,000. If more rural aid is awarded, but regional transportation is reduced, are we really gaining anything?”

Additionally, Modestow said the towns of Conway, Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately are falling into a “crack” in the state’s funding formula because it takes residents’ income into account, meaning a few wealthy individuals are able to skew the funding formula due to “the size of our communities.”

“They need to fix the formula to be more equitable to actually examine the wealth of the communities. … We aren’t rural enough, or poor enough as a whole to receive off-setting rural aid,” Modestow said. “When you don’t have commercial or industry to offset it, everything falls on taxpayers and property taxes. … Smaller towns have felt the crunch earlier than us and eventually it’s coming.”

The Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts received $161,077 and $24,294, respectively, in rural school aid for FY22. Stanton echoed the same points raised by Modestow, saying state officials need to realize that rural school funding cannot be solved by a one-size-fits-all solution.

“Until we address that, our districts are negatively impacted by these shifts in wealth and it would be my hope that the state could understand that the wealth formula is not working,” Stanton said. If rural school districts don’t receive funding, administrators then have to make “really difficult economic decisions” like cutting extracurricular activities, which leads into a “downward spiral” where families leave the district because it doesn’t have the activities students desire.

“Unfortunately it’s those kinds of programs outside the core academics that take the heat,” Stanton added. “And that’s certainly not what our families want and it’s not what we want.”

Small class sizes, particularly in elementary schools, are also another barrier for districts like Hawlemont and Union 38. Stanton noted it’s “expensive to run a small elementary school.”

“We have anywhere from 10 to 15 students in a grade level. If two or three students leave, we still have to have that classroom teacher,” Stanton explained. “There’s no way to consolidate, it’s not an option for us.”

Blais said population decline and slowing job growth have contributed to the situation rural school districts now find themselves in, and additional aid is “desperately needed.” With the Special Commission on Rural School Districts’ report finalized, Blais said the next step is to begin holding conversations around the findings.

“Our work is just beginning in that sense,” Blais said. “It is talking with colleagues here in Legislature, both in leadership and our colleagues across the commonwealth, who will be impacted by the recommendations in this report.”

Stanton, who thanked Hinds and Blais for their work on the commission, said the work fighting for rural school aid has only just begun.

“This moment isn’t the answer,” Stanton said. “This, to me, feels like it’s the beginning of the answer.”

The full report can be downloaded on the state Legislature’s website at bit.ly/3uXs4JT.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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