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Rural schools: How do we make state aware of budget woes?

  • Transportation costs represent a larger percentage of rural school budgets than more populated areas of the state. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

Recorder Staff
Published: 9/28/2016 9:07:08 PM

BUCKLAND — Close to a dozen educators met at Mohawk Tuesday morning to review the case for why the state should raise Chapter 70 funding for rural schools with declining enrollments for the last two decades.

“Mohawk lost 40 percent of its enrollment over the last 15 years,” said Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, chairman of the Massachusetts Rural School Coalition. “Our state aid has been flat, but 60 to 70 percent of our budget is based on (employee contracts), which are not flat,” he said. “Our per capita income is low, and the costs fall on our residents.”

After noting that rural school districts spend more money per student than those in urban areas, he added: “Most of us cannot afford $20,000 per student. If we’re not in crisis now, we’re going to be in the next four to five years.”

How to make Boston understand the differences between “us and them” was the crux of this discussion, as various superintendents weighed in on Buoniconti’s two-page Massachusetts Public School Aid proposal. They made a few corrections and suggested drawing in eastern Massachusetts rural school systems on Cape Cod that share similar pattern of low enrollment and high costs for education.

According to Buoniconti, state education Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson suggested the legislative proposal for rural “sparcity” aid might be better received if the superintendents’ group put in “steps to efficiencies” contingencies, showing how the schools will become more efficient in the future.

“I think Jeff’s making an appropriate comment,” said John D. Barry, superintendent of the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District. “To get $20 million more without showing effort” would be inadequate, he implied.

“We could also demonstrate that we’ve already done these efficiencies,” said Gill-Montague Superintendent Michael Sullivan.

The group agreed to add to Buoniconti’s information, by describing what steps the districts have already taken to economize.

Another educator pointed out that property values in western Massachusetts are less than in urban areas, which could be another factor, along with lower per capita income, on why rural areas have fewer resources.

Orange and Petersham school districts Superintendent Tari Thomas suggested inviting Associate Commissioner Carrie Conaway from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to a future meeting in western Massachusetts, so that she see the differences first-hand. She said school districts within the Interstate-495 belt are not facing the same sort of crisis that the rural regions have. Also, she noted that legislators serving the Boston area are unaware of the problems of rural school systems.

The educators are hoping to finish the proposal by October or November, so that it can go to the Legislature by January.

Sullivan is to prepare a cost-per-student analysis, comparing costs in rural school districts with those in cities and suburbs. He said the most disadvantaged rural schools are spending about $4,000 more per student than the largest urban school districts. “Our districts are much more expensive to run,” he said.

Reaching out

By telephone, Stephen Hemman, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools, suggested going to other school committees in the state to explain the plight of rural schools, and drum up support beyond western Massachusetts. He suggested going to Boston with students during the Massachusetts Association of School Committees’ “A Day on the Hill.”

Buoniconti suggested holding a “Rural Day on the Hill,” when students could come, speak with legislators and “tell their story.” Hemman said the process, from filing legislation to having it come before the House/Senate joint education committee can take about six months. “They don’t pass legislation until all the hearings are done,” he said.

“So, realistically speaking, we don’t have a prayer of getting money into (next) year’s budget,” Buoniconti asked. Hemmen replied that the group could ask to get something in the budget for the coming school year, but that the legislation would take longer.

Hemman pointed out that, when former Gov. Deval Patrick planned to cut regional school transportation, rural schools were able to make the case of what the repercussions would be if the money was cut mid-year; and the funding was restored. He suggested superintendents present what crisis might happen without additional money in the next few years.

Erving Union 28 Superintendent Jennifer Haggerty suggested getting statements of support for the rural aid legislation from all the school committees.

The group will meet again, with revised data, on Oct. 26, at 10 a.m. in the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School, 507 S. Main St., in Orange.

Their tentative proposal is for the state to pay up to $1,000 per student in rural aid, based on a four-tiered assessment. Those eligible for the most aid include Athol-Royalston, Mohawk Trail Regional School, New Salem-Wendell and Orange. All have had at least a 20 percent enrollment decline in 15 years; less than 25 residents per square mile; less than a 3 percent annual increase in Chapter 70 aid over 15 years; and communities with per capita incomes of less than $37,000.

In this Tier 1 group, Athol-Royalston would get $1.4 million more state aid, and Mohawk would get $1 million more. Gill-Montague, in the Tier 2 level, would get about $525,000 more aid; Pioneer Valley Regional School, in Tier 3, would get $263,750; and Greenfield, in Tier 4, would get $214,600 in rural aid.

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