Mohawk supt. seeks ‘rural school aid’

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/9/2016 11:36:59 PM

BUCKLAND — Saying that 50 school districts and about 100 rural towns “will soon face the equivalent of bankruptcy,” Mohawk Trail Regional School Superintendent Michael Buoniconti has drafted a proposal to establish rural school aid as part of the state’s Chapter 70 educational aid formula. Part of the plan is to support state legislation that would get this additional aid to schools for the budget year that begins July 2017.

If the state were to adopt Buoniconti’s plan as written, it would generate $1 million per year more in state aid for Mohawk and $1.5 million per year more in state aid for the Athol-Royalston school district, for example.

“The fundamental argument that I make in this proposal is that rural schools are structurally underfunded by the Massachusetts Chapter 70 program,” he said. “I assert that, even if a rural school district were to close all its schools and revert to a one-room school house, given perpetually flat state education aid, the district will eventually become financially unsustainable.”

Inspired by Wisconsin’s $17.7 million “sparsity aid” provided to rural, low-enrollment schools in that state, Buoniconti is proposing a rural school aid program based on four criteria: enrollment, population density, Chapter 70 and per-capita income per town.

“This criteria would be measured according to data published by the National Center for Education Statistics,” Buoniconti wrote in his plan. He suggested using 15 years of data; if fiscal year 2017-2018 is the starting point, then data from fiscal year (FY) 1998 to FY 2013 would be used. The percentage drop in enrollment would be calculated by the enrollment drop between the two years, and the total square mileage of the district divided by the FY 2013 student enrollment. The percentage of change in the district’s Chapter 70 aid would be estimated by subtracting the district’s aid in FY 1998 from the FY 2013 aid amount. Then the per-capita income would come from the U.S. Census.

Buoniconti is proposing a tiered-aid system in which school systems most in need would be eligible for the most aid.

Tier 1 districts would be eligible for $1,000-per-student rural aid (the most aid possible) if:

the enrollment decline is greater than or equal to 20 percent

there are less than or equal to 25 students per square mile

Chapter 70 aid increases over 15 years are less than or equal to 3 percent

per capital income is less than or equal to $37,500

Tier 2 school systems with a 15 percent enrollment decline and less severe criteria would be eligible for $500 per student rural aid. Tier 3 schools would get $250 per student and Tier 4 would get $100 per student.

Based on his eligibility criteria, the Rural School Aid Program would cost the state about $20 million, with the money going to 50 traditional rural public school districts. Buoniconti said this represents about 0.32 percent of the state’s $6.2 billion public education budget.

Under this plan, the following local schools would be eligible for the following amounts of rural aid:

(Tier 1) Athol-Royalston $1,476,000, Hawlemont $96,000, Mohawk $1,007,000, New Salem-Wendell $137,000 and Orange $677,000.

(Tier 2) Gill-Montague $525,000, and Shutesbury $72,500.

(Tier 3) Conway $44,500, Leverett $35,750, and Pioneer Valley $263,750.

(Tier 4) Greenfield $214,600 and Sunderland $18,300.

In arguing for the aid, the report says that rural public school districts are at a strategic disadvantage in two of three factors driving state education aid. First, two-thirds of these rural districts have experienced big drops in enrollment since the late 1990s — declines that don’t result in proportionate decreases in operating costs. Second, the rural districts are concentrated in sections of the state where per capita incomes and wages are the lowest.

Buoniconti lists 17 regional rural school districts in which enrollment decreased an average 25 percent from 1998 to 2013, while operating expenses increased an overall 3.4 percent. Between those years, he said, Chapter 70 funds increased about 2.2 percent annually for many rural public schools while costs increased 3.6 percent years. As a result, taxpayers were shouldering local assessment increases of nearly 6 percent — three times the rate of state aid.

Buoniconti has given this draft plan to the Mohawk Trail Regional School District School Committee and to school superintendents participating in the recently formed Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition. “I wrote this initial draft, but I’m gathering feedback from the Mass. Rural Schools Coalition as well as town officials,” he said. “The feedback will be incorporated into the final version, which I hope to complete by September.”

Buoniconti said members of the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition met with two associate commissioners from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education at a superintendents’ conference last month and the outcome was a recommendation that a proposal be developed to amend the state’s Chapter 70 aid program “to address financial problems of rural schools.”


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