New Salem, Wendell, Orange endorse letter to governor on lack of rural school aid

  • The Swift River School in New Salem is shown Jan. 12, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 2/11/2019 7:24:47 AM

NEW SALEM — They’re facing declining enrollment, rising costs of health care and special education and expensive transportation, and they’re feeling left out when it comes to state funding for rural schools.

The New Salem, Wendell and Orange Selectboards have formally endorsed a letter from Michael A. Buoniconti, superintendent of the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school distrcits and chairman of the Massachusetts Rural Schools Commission, to Gov. Charlie Baker with a list of concerns and recommendations regarding Chapter 70, the state’s 25-year-old funding formula for public schools.

Recommendations include considering a funding model similar to that in Wisconsin, where schools that meet certain criteria become eligible for “sparsity aid” and an additional $400 per student from the state.

“In order to provide Massachusetts rural public school students with an adequate education, it is truly imperative that state leadership addresses the unique needs of its rural students within the Massachusetts public educational funding formula,” Buoniconti said. “Please remember that every rural student wants to succeed too.”

According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the state spends an average $15,350 per student each year. For the New Salem-Wendell School District, that number is $15,637, and rural schools, on average, spend more per student than urban districts, largely due to busing costs. However, critics of Chapter 70 argue that conditions unique to rural areas, like the cost of transportation, require more money than provided by the formula established in the 1993 Education Reform Act.

“Student enrollment has declined significantly in rural Massachusetts public schools since the turn of the millenium,” Buoniconti said. “Chapter 70 general educational funding to rural Massachusetts public schools has remained essentially flat during this long period.”

Buoniconti also noted operating costs have risen “persisently.”

There are also fixed costs that have risen but must be paid. The Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District, for example, saw several cuts to services this year, including late buses, with school officials citing the rising costs of special education as a challenge. According to DESE, rural schools also spend about 50 percent more on transportation.

Buoniconti added that the Massachusetts Coalition of Rural Schools “greatly appreciated the $1.5 million Rural School Aid provided in the state’s fiscal year 2019 budget.” He said the money begins to address the problem, but that it’s a “one-time support that does not truly attack the longterm issues of sustainability our rural schools face.”

The Massachusetts Foundation Budget Review Commission has already proposed changes to the “archaic” Chapter 70 formula, Buoniconti said, but none of them address the problems faced by rural schools.

“This is perhaps not surprising given that Massachusetts is among the least rural states within the nation, but it is no consolation to the nearly 100,000 students attending public schools in rural parts of the commonwealth,” Buoniconti said.

One recommendation is the addition of a “rurality factor” that would take into consideration factors like limited economies of scale, low student density, large geographic districts and high transportation costs.

The letter was also signed by Erving Superintendent Jennifer Haggerty, Quabbin Regional School District Superintendent Sheila Muir, Hampshire Regional School District Superintendent Aaron Osborne, Hatfield Regional School District Superintendent John Robert and Pioneer Valley Regional School District Superintendent Jonathan Scagel.

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.


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