Officials sound off to legislators on broadband, schools

  • A 14 member state Senate delegation visited Conway Town Hall Tuesday morning as part of “Commonwealth Conversations” listening tour. March 28, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Rep. Adam Hinds, D Pittsfield, hosts a 14 member state Senate delegation that visited Conway Town Hall Tuesday morning as part of “Commonwealth Conversations” listening tour. March 28, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • A 14 member state Senate delegation visited Conway Town Hall Tuesday morning as part of “Commonwealth Conversations” listening tour. March 28, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Linda Dunlavy of the Franklin Council of Governments speaks about the state of Broadband in the State to a 14 member state Senate delegation that visited Conway Town Hall Tuesday morning as part of “Commonwealth Conversations” listening tour. March 28, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Linda Dunlavy of the Franklin Council of Governments speaks about the state of Broadband in the State to a 14 member state Senate delegation that visited Conway Town Hall Tuesday morning as part of “Commonwealth Conversations” listening tour. March 28, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Rep. Adam Hinds, D Pittsfield, hosts a 14 member state Senate delegation that visited Conway Town Hall Tuesday morning as part of “Commonwealth Conversations” listening tour. March 28, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • A 14 member state Senate delegation visited Conway Town Hall Tuesday morning as part of “Commonwealth Conversations” listening tour. March 28, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • A 14 member state Senate delegation visited Conway Town Hall Tuesday morning as part of “Commonwealth Conversations” listening tour. March 28, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 3/28/2017 11:28:12 PM

CONWAY — A 14-member state Senate delegation got a blast about rural issues from nearly a dozen officials from the four western counties Tuesday.

The legislators were taking a listening tour and began their day in the Conway Town Hall.

Speakers from regional planning agencies tried to explain some of the interrelated problems rural towns face, including:

Declining populations have increased the financial burden for the remaining, aging population to pay for services and schools, and for finding replacement workers, town committee members and volunteer firefighters.

Lack of adequate transportation in sparsely populated areas and state funding formulas that penalize small towns in a variety of ways.

At the end of the day some of the Boston area legislators said they hadn’t realized the extent of difficulty small rural towns have with lack of broadband and educational expenses.

Michael Buoniconti, Mohawk Trail Regional School District superintendent, who chairs the Massachusetts Regional Schools Coalition, told the senators that in addition to declining enrollments and “flat” Chapter 70 school aid from the state, rural schools lack the economy of scale that allows absorption of costs.

“I have a class of 20 kids and I lose five kids, I still need a (whole) teacher. I can’t hire three-quarters of a teacher,” said Buoniconti, calling for some “enabling tools … before we start to lose the qualities of our schools.”

The newly formed rural schools coalition, he added, is “looking for ways to help ourselves … that might not cost money.”

In addition to finding ways to share administrative costs, he said legislation allowing a four-day school week could save schools transportation and operating costs.

“Broadband would then become critical” to support expanded remote learning approaches.

Broadband critical

Linda Dunlavy, Franklin County Regional Council of Governments executive director, outlined the 20-year odyssey of trying to bring broadband to unserved and underserved communities, underscoring an issue that was raised repeatedly.

The recent bankruptcy of the operator of Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s “middle-mile” network, which she said is “highly underutilized … an opportunity for Massachusetts to restructure a deal to be better for the operator and better for the communities that need to use that middle-mile network.”

She added, “The state funding is a huge help to all of our towns but will only fund 25 to 33 percent of the cost of the network. These towns, the smallest towns in Massachusetts, have voted to tax themselves to solve this problem. And to own and operate a broadband network on their own, that’s a huge task for the smallest towns in Massachusetts.”

Charlemont Selectboard member Beth Bandy, representing the Small Town Summit, added, “Without broadband, we’re really suffering,” and said the coalition — representing about 20 small towns in Franklin, Berkshire and Hampshire counties — is exploring ways to share services to cut costs ways.

“But there’s a limit. There are things we need help with,” she said, pointing out the special “sparsity aid” that states like Wisconsin and Minnesota provide to rural school districts.

Economic development

Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of One Berkshire, pointed to a shortage of skilled workers to meet the needs of employers throughout the region and added dealing with the pressures on local school budgets is critical.

“It’s an economic development issue,” he said. “We have employers trying to attract talent, and we have young families looking at the trajectory of our school districts, and they don’t like what they see.”

Butler told the senators, “The idea of having one formula to solve a problem … in Massachusetts doesn’t always work for us in western Mass.,” illustrating with Gov. Charlie Baker’s across-the-board cut of tourism funding that hurt rural areas that depend more heavily on tourism than urban areas.

Energy issues

Todd Ford, executive director of the Hampshire Council of Governments, spoke to the delegation about energy issues, pointing to discrepancies between the current Eversource rate case’s relative effects on eastern and western Massachusetts.

Even though $60 million would come from eastern ratepayers, compared to $35 million from western Massachusetts ratepayers, it works out to $162 per meter in this part of the state versus $50 per meter for eastern customers, he said.

That “inequity,” he said, is softened for National Grid customers, by “capacity tags” letting the company “socialize that cost along all ratepayers.”

Both utilities, Ford said, exemplify out-of-state energy corporations that remove 80 percent of the $22 billion annually that Massachusetts spends on energy — a “gaping wound the state needs to address to take control of high energy costs. ”

Area senators

In addition to Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, recently installed Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, served as host.

Rosenberg said after the forum that most of the senators visiting from outside the region “are hearing this for the first time. They may have gotten some public testimony on a committee they’ve served on, but they would not have heard this comprehensive view of the range of issues that small communities deal with. It’s such an unusually strong and comprehensive panel that captured all of the bits and pieces that really are in exaggerated forms in small communities because of their scale.”

Speaking later in the day, after he’d had a chance to discuss the meeting with fellow senators, Hinds said some expressed surprise that there are towns without high-speed internet access.

“You get so focused on representing the district you represent that you don’t pay attention to (other) districts across the state,” he said. “It speaks to the value of bringing, in this case, a third of the Senate to the district and spelling out very clearly the dynamics that we face and the difference between eastern and western Mass.”

Hinds added, “They were shocked by the educational component, in particular,” and repeated several of the points from the morning session to Senate Education Chairwoman Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, who joined the contingent later.

“This is historic — we have 15 state senators at one time here in Conway,” said Conway Selectmen’s Chairman John O’Rourke. “We’ve never had this before. At least they can hear from people who are knowledgeable about this. It’s people who know what’s happening.”

The meeting had to be moved upstairs after the downstairs meeting room that had been set up proved to small for the crowd. The gathering had originally been scheduled for the Congregational Church, which was damaged by a Feb. 25 tornado.

“It would been a mess downstairs,” said O’Rourke, who apologized to the crowd for holding the meeting in a space that was not handicapped accessible.

The rush to compensate for the late arrival of the delegation’s bus, and the hour that had been set for the event at the start of a day that included stops also in Westfield, Springfield and Amherst meant ending the Conway event without an opportunity for the nearly 50 area residents in the audience to ask questions or raise concerns of their own.

Others legislators attending were Sen. Donald Humason, R-Westfield; Sen. Eric Lesser, D-East Longmeadow; Sen. James Welch, D-Springfield; Thomas McGee, D-Lynn; Michael Barrett, D-Lexington; Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester; James Eldridge, D-Acton; Jason Lewis, D-Winchester; Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport; Julien Cyr, D-Truro; Joseph Boncore, D-Winthrop; and John Keenan, D-Quincy.

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 269




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