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Editorial: Solving the student shortage problem in Heath

  • Heath town sign. PAUL FRANZ


Monday, July 11, 2016

It was about a quarter century ago when the school-age population of Heath swelled so much that the hilltown decided to build its own elementary school. At the time, it was sending its pupils to next-door Rowe Elementary School.

The Heath School opened in September 1996, and for 20 years its children got their educational foundation close to home.

Now their school may be closing, or shrinking radically, because the enrollment that once swelled has now receded with the wave of Baby Boomer children. Heath may become the first Franklin County town to confront the stark financial and educational realities of this trend, which other larger towns are also glimpsing on their horizons.

This year, Heath, a K-12 member of the Mohawk Trail Regional School District, had about 50 students in kindergarten through Grade 6, in combined classes, with just two second-graders and two fifth-graders.

Heath education and municipal officials, to their credit, have seen this coming for a while and formed a task force that has been meeting almost weekly since January to find the most realistic options for educating their children.

Heath selectmen’s Chairwoman Sheila Litchfield noted recently “It was pretty clear that, after this one school year, things are going to change.”

Heath is in various degrees of discussion with its neighbors about where it might send its pupils under a variety of possible arrangements. Discussions have begun about leaving the Mohawk district for elementary education and joining the separate K-6 Hawlemont Regional School District, which serves 102 students from tiny Hawley and larger Charlemont. Other possibilities are to make arrangements with other neighbors: Rowe, Colrain, Buckland-Shelburne.

Some in the Mohawk district might actually welcome the change because Heath has been seen as a financial drag on its fellow district towns.

Heath Elementary School, ranked as a Level 1 school based on its MCAS results, has a per-pupil cost of about $22,000 — compared to $12,232 in the Buckland Shelburne Elementary School, $14,632 at Sanderson Academy, and $19,029 at Colrain Central.

Maintaining political control of their own elementary schools, and keeping their youngest close to the nest, has been a strong undercurrent that has kept Mohawk towns from changing their district agreement to allow a majority of towns to force the closure of a neighboring school like Heath. So the district has struggled for years to find innovative ways to maintain the quality of education in the face of shrinking enrollment, rising costs, and defections through charter school and Choice programs.

So, it seems, Heath may be doing its neighbors a favor.

Joining Hawlemont would give Heath voters a voice in the governance of their adoptive school, something that would be diminished if it merely tuitioned students to another town. But the pros and cons will have to be weighed and settled by Heath’s taxpayers and parents.

“One of our hopes is that what would remain in Heath would be an early education program, for children in pre-K through Grade 1,” said Litchfield. “But it depends on how voters feel, and on what kind of space is available. There’s a lot of work yet to be done.”

Indeed.