Local officials say state education budget deficient, hurts rural districts

  • The Mohawk Trail Regional School District presented a nearly 12.9 million budget to the public at a Feb. 16 public hearing. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

 Staff Writer
Published: 3/28/2022 8:46:15 PM
Modified: 3/28/2022 8:45:19 PM

Although the governor’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget includes an increase of $485 million in Chapter 70 funds— money that provides state aid to public elementary and secondary schools — local officials and legislators alike are concerned about the impact it will have on the community and its school districts.

That’s because even with that increase, nearly half of all school districts would remain “minimum aid” districts, receiving new aid of just $30 per student.

“During the (Joint Ways and Means Committee) hearing, the administration acknowledged this was a problem for many school districts across the commonwealth, and yet there was no attempt to address it in the governor’s proposed budget,” said Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland. “That is extremely concerning to me because of the impact it will have on our community and our school districts.”

Blais said while the passage of the Student Opportunity Act — a law that commits the state to investing an additional $1.5 billion in Chapter 70 aid over seven years, beginning in 2021 — was “monumental,” 135 of 318 districts would receive below-inflation aid increases.

“Most small rural districts have yet to see any benefit from the law,” said Mohawk Trail School District Committee Chairwoman Martha Thurber. “$30 per kid goes nowhere.”

In an analysis by Massachusetts Municipal Association, the $30 per student minimum aid accounts for a .4% increase in change in aid for the Mohawk Trail Regional School District in fiscal year 2023. In the northern part of the county, Pioneer Valley Regional School District, also a minimum aid district, saw just .5% of an increase in its aid. The same increase was true for Frontier Regional School District. That’s compared to districts elsewhere that saw upwards of 40% increases in aid.

With the annual increase in contractual costs — teacher salaries, heat and other facility expenses — the result is municipalities “bearing the brunt of these increased costs.”

“For any of our towns, education is 55-60% of the total town budget,” Thurber said. “Every time education takes more, than that leaves less for them to do roads and bridges and everything else a town needs to be able to do.”

The lack of support from the state has also played a part in program cuts and staffing cuts over the years.

“It’s definitely a continuing problem and I’m trying to get people to understand what it’s like to try and educate children in a small rural district like ours,” she said. “They don’t understand what it’s like.”

Thurber said the efforts of local legislators pushing rural school aid has been helpful, but as that is funding that gets appropriated every year, “we can’t count on it.”

“That’s helpful, but it’s a sustainability issue for us,” Thurber said. “We cannot continue to provide an education our kids need and deserve when we get absolutely no increase in support from the state.”

Thurber said because the district is in a “hold harmless” condition — which allows school districts to retain the amount of Chapter 70 aid they receive even if enrollment drops — it hasn’t seen an increase in aid in more than 20 years.

“Everything we do is based on student enrollment,” she explained. “The reality is, when you’re talking about rural school districts, we have to have one teacher in every classroom, whether that classroom has one kid it in or 20 kids in it. … That kind of efficiency of scale, we’re not going to be able to have.”

During the Joint Ways and Means Committee hearing on the education and local aid portions of Gov. Charlie Baker’s $48.5 billion fiscal 2023 budget plan, the MMA called for the Legislature to increase the per-student minimum age from $30 to $100 “to ensure no school district or student falls behind.”

Pioneer Valley Regional School District Interim Superintendent Patricia Kinsella said the district is grateful for the support it receives from the state. Pioneer Valley is also a minimum aid district, currently in a “hold harmless” condition.

“We are glad to hear these conversations are taking place … to ensure our rural districts receive the support,” Kinsella said.

Even in non-minimum aid districts like Greenfield, Superintendent Christine DeBarge said as costs continue to rise, budget items that are currently offset by COVID-related federal grants, such as the ESSER funding, are limited by time. She acknowledged the $1.7 million increase in Chapter 70 funds over last fiscal year, representing an increase of about 13% in aid.

“We have to have a lot of conversations about budgeting and prioritizing resources over the next couple years,” DeBarge said.

Thurber said with legislators like Blais and Sen. Adam Hinds, who both understand the unique needs of rural school districts, she’s more hopeful than in the past.

“They do get it,” she said. “They understand the problems. We’re optimistic.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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