Bills look to ensure ‘sustainable future’ for rural schools

  • Gateway Regional School District senior Joey Pisani speaks to legislators, education association representatives and local officials during a briefing on two rural school aid bills on Thursday. Screenshot

  • Natalie Blais

  • Jo Comerford

Staff Writer
Published: 7/20/2023 5:10:12 PM

Legislators, education association representatives, and school and town officials were briefed Thursday morning on bills proposing to codify numerous recommendations to ensure the long-term sustain ability of rural schools.

Bills H.3567 and S.2388, titled “An Act to Provide a Sustainable Future For Rural Schools,” would address the Rural School Aid Fund; provide technical assistance to help schools manage health insurance benefits; ensure new assistance and funding for districts looking to regionalize; and expand schools’ abilities to provide high-quality special education services, among other provisions. The bills are sponsored by state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton.

Thursday morning’s briefing provided an opportunity for several western Massachusetts residents to share their experience with rural schools in a group that include Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Director Linda Dunlavy, Sunderland School Committee Chair Jessica Corwin and Gateway Regional School District senior Joey Pisani.

“The situation with rural schools isn’t one of greed, it’s one of equity. … They’re not asking for an advantage, they’re asking for survival,” said Pisani, who shared his experience enduring long bus rides with the Greenfield Recorder and Daily Hampshire Gazette in 2022. “When rural schools have a sustainable future, the entire commonwealth benefits because students today are what will continue to make Massachusetts thrive tomorrow.”

The two bills are a follow-through from local legislators of the July 2022 “A Sustainable Future for Rural Schools” report from the state’s Special Commission on Rural School Districts, which identified the pressing challenges directly inhibiting rural schools’ and towns’ abilities to educate their children.

“We found that many rural schools do not benefit from education with the same level of resources and breadth of opportunities,” said Lisa Battaglino, Bridgewater State University’s dean emeritus of the College of Education and Health Sciences, who also worked with the special commission. “Rural schools and the children in rural schools are getting less than what they need and what they deserve.”

Highlights in the bills include codifying a $60 million line item for the Rural School Aid Fund — the amount recommended by the special commission — as well as requiring the state to pay the full amount of “extraordinary transportation costs” for students in rural communities and requiring the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to review special education regulations for rural schools.

This sort of funding, Dunlavy said, would allow districts in Franklin County and across the state to keep young families in the community, while also taking the load off municipal budgets and residents’ taxes.

Dunlavy said there was a 21% decline in K-12 enrollment in Franklin County between 2010 and 2019, and on average, 50% of each town’s budget in the county is dedicated to education. She noted population projections from 2020 to 2050 show “an anticipated precipitous decline.”

“That doesn’t mean there’s a 21% decline in school costs,” Dunlavy emphasized, adding that supporting rural schools can “make for a stronger commonwealth overall.”

In her remarks, Corwin, who has been a teacher in several districts around the state, said school costs like health insurance crush town budgets and lead to low teacher pay, which then causes staff to look for higher-paying jobs elsewhere to support their families.

Additionally, there are several provisions in the bills that would provide assistance to all schools in Massachusetts, not just the 67 districts that were eligible to receive rural school aid in fiscal year 2023.

The bills would provide regionalization and shared services support for all districts, establish a non-resident transportation fund to reimburse schools for the costs of transporting students from another town and establish a commission to re-examine special education financing.

From the municipal perspective, Deerfield Selectboard Chair Carolyn Shores Ness said after the panel that education costs cause the Deerfield budget to get “squeezed and squeezed.”

“This is the kind of conundrum we’re in as communities,” Shores Ness said. “We have an excellent superintendent, we have excellent schools and we really want to support them, but the numbers aren’t there and that’s where the problem is.”

The bills have been referred to the Joint Committee on Education and are waiting to be scheduled for a public hearing. Blais encouraged folks to continue sharing their stories and experiences as the legislation moves forward.

“Your voices are powerful and this will advance because of people power,” Blais said. “This is about solidarity, this is about supporting every student, every teacher and every school in our commonwealth.”

More information about the bill and rural school funding can be found at, which is organized by Shores Ness, Corwin, Mohawk Trail Regional School District School Committee Chair Martha Thurber, and Sheryl Stanton, superintendent of the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts.

Chris Larabee can be reached at or 413-930-4081.


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