Mohawk, other rural schools share enrollment drop, rising costs

  • The rural school district meeting in Buckland on Wednesday. Recorder Staff/Diane Broncaccio

Recorder Staff
Published: 3/23/2016 10:05:27 PM

BUCKLAND — Although rural public school districts occupy nearly 70 percent of the entire state land mass, they represent only about 19 percent of the state’s public school districts, and they educate only 9 percent of all the state’s school children.

This was among statistics laid out by Mohawk/Hawlemont Superintendent of Schools Michael Buoniconti at a meeting about how to bring the problems of struggling rural schools to the attention of state officials in the eastern, more-populated part of the state. The meeting was held Wednesday in the Mohawk Trail Regional High School.

About 45 educators, including officials from the Gill-Montague, Frontier, Mahar, Erving and Franklin County Technical school districts, came to discuss strategies to advocate for cash-strapped school systems. They were invited to consider forming a Massachusetts Rural School District Association, to “give a voice” to districts that are having an increasingly more difficult time meeting expenses.

Buoniconti said 66 of the state’s 94 rural districts have seen declining enrollment over the past 20 years, with school systems from western Massachusetts losing 39 to 57 percent of their student populations during these decades. And, compared to the state’s most populous school districts — Boston, which is 48 square miles, or Springfield, 32 square miles — Mohawk, with less than 1,000 students, covers 253 square miles, and the Franklin County Technical School covers 566 square miles.

He said Chapter 70 state education aid has either been declining, level or barely increasing between 2006 and 2016.

“We’re getting less money today than we got 10 years ago,” Buoniconti pointed out. “So we’re asking our towns for more and more money, and we’re getting to the point where they’re saying ‘no.’”

He added, “I don’t anticipate getting a (town-approved) budget this year.”

The issues Buoniconti put forth to his colleagues — higher-than-average per-pupil spending, bigger transportation costs, under-used school building space and the disproportionate effect that charter schools have on rural school budgets — were all too familiar. The problem was: how to explain them to state agencies that are more familiar with urban school issues than rural ones.

Buoniconti used “rural” definitions created by the National Center of Education Statistics to calculate his local data. He told the group the state doesn’t have a specific definition.

“When I asked, ‘What is rural?’ I was told, ‘It’s a state of mind.’ ‘Good god,’ I thought, ‘that guy is probably right.’”

He said Wisconsin, which is giving $300-per-student “sparsity aid” to rural school districts, defines them as serving a population of fewer than 10 students per mile.

Perry P. Davis, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools (MARS), said in the days before state education reform, regional incentive aid was factored in that helped rural districts until about 1992. “When I was a superintendent, I remember getting up to 95 percent of my regional transportation costs reimbursed,” he said. “Some of the unintended consequences of ed reform was a loss of some incentives.”

Several current superintendents echoed concerns that Mohawk Trail Regional School district towns have heard for many years during budget hearings.

Quabbin Regional Schools Superintendent Maureen Marshall said the student enrollment in her district has dropped by at least one-third. She said many districts, including her own, have difficulties getting their towns to approve their rising budgets.

Jonathan Lev of the Northern Berkshire School Union said one special education student’s transportation to the nearest out-of-district school costs the district $20,000, and is not a reimbursed cost.

“Our population is dropping like a rock in Berkshire,” said Bill Ballen, executive director of Berkshire County Superintendent’s Roundtable, and a former school superintendent. He said the closing of a factory in Pittsfield will put an end to about 300 jobs, and that some of the local districts are looking to share administrators to cut school costs.

Buoniconti said he would like the new rural schools association to look at ways to save costs. He said some districts could reduce excess space by closing school buildings or re-using parts of the buildings for libraries or senior centers, but if they received state money for past building improvements, the districts could be asked to repay School Building Authority money.” We’ve got to change the rules,” he said.

Mary Jane Bacon, of Sen. Stan Rosenberg’s office, agreed with Buoniconti that “there is not an effective voice for rural schools.” She urged the group to build consensus and to build its credibility by getting some early successes.

“Do not discount the (Massachusetts Municipal Association),” she said. “You have to get to them as well.”

She continued, “You don’t want to blind-side (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) … You want to get them familiar with these ideas and get them to help you work on these topics.”

The group of rural superintendents is to meet again on April 11, and representatives plan to attend a meeting on April 12 that focuses on “the needs of rural schools facing the challenge of declining enrollment.” That is a joint meeting of MARS and Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, in Palmer.


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