Charlemont, Hawley officials push Healey for more rural school aid

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 02-21-2023 4:52 PM

CHARLEMONT — School and town officials have sent Gov. Maura Healey a letter urging her to fund an annual appropriation of $60 million directed entirely at rural and declining-enrollment schools.

“Now is the time to act. The state has considerable existing resources, as well as expected revenues from the ‘Fair Share Amendment.’ Our small towns do not. We have economized and provided strong local support for our schools, but we need more help,” states the Feb. 16 letter from members of the Hawlemont and Mohawk Trail school committees, as well as the finance committees and selectboards of Hawley and Charlemont.

As the state is weeks away from the governor proposing her first annual budget, the members of the various boards want rural schools to be on her mind.

“The budget matters and everything is picking up momentum right now,” said Kenneth Bertsch, chair of the Hawlemont Regional School District School Committee.

For fiscal year 2023, there was a rural school line item for $4 million. The Special Commission on Rural School Districts’ report that came out in the summer of 2022 recommends this line item should be increased to $60 million.

“We have a new governor,” Bertsch said. “There is a lot to be learned about where she will go on all kinds of budget matters.”

Bertsch noted if Healey’s budget is not high enough for rural schools, he will press legislators in the State House to raise this line item.

The line item for rural schools has been on the state budget since fiscal year 2020. Bertsch explained this line acknowledges the difficulties in funding rural schools and should be increased.

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Chapter 70 education funding for Hawlemont has remained virtually flat for more than 20 years. For example, Hawlemont Chapter 70 aid was $758,481 in FY2002 and $638,716 in FY2022. Despite this flat funding, fixed costs that do not decline with enrollment changes have pushed up operating budgets.

“We believe strongly that more needs to be done. Unless there is further change, small rural towns will continue to struggle in coming up with adequate funding for education even when the Student Opportunity Act is fully implemented,” the letter continues.

The Special Commission on Rural School Districts’ report includes 36 recommendations for the state, with funding rural schools to $60 million as one recommendation. 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 former state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland.

“There is increasing focus on the support of schools,” Bertsch said. Healey “is pro-school, so this is something she may pay attention to.”

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.

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Letter to Gov Healey on Rur... by Bella Levavi