School officials: ‘Help us get onto a level playing field’ with Rural School Aid bump

  • HINDS

  • KINSELLA

Staff Writer
Published: 8/5/2022 7:10:06 PM
Modified: 8/5/2022 7:06:58 PM

Editor’s note: This is a story in a continuing series diving into the Special Commission on Rural School Districts’ report. Each story will highlight a major aspect of the report and will feature perspectives from local school administrators and town officials.

As rural school districts struggle to keep budgets at a comfortable level for their communities, officials say the nearly $60 million increase in Rural School Aid recommended by the Special Commission on Rural School Districts could help fill in the gaps left by state funding.

The state allocates Rural School Aid each year based on a district’s student density and per-capita income. This aid can be spent on a “wide variety of purposes to support district operations,” according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

For fiscal year 2022, the state appropriated $4 million in aid, which did not go very far once split among 67 eligible districts — it is important to note some regional school districts were broken up into their individual schools. For example, Union 38 School District’s rural aid was broken into individual appropriations for Conway, Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately.

Funding is separated into three priority tiers, also based on the student density of the district. Priority 1 funding — which includes the vast majority of every district and school in Franklin and Hampshire counties — is for districts that serve no more than 11 students per square mile.

The Pioneer Valley Regional School District received $116,848 in Rural School Aid in fiscal year 2022, which Superintendent Patricia Kinsella and Director of Finance Operations Jordan Burns is insufficient. Burns explained this is because of a flaw in the state’s funding formula, which ignores the unique challenges facing rural school districts.

“Essentially you’re still getting aid as if you still have the same number of students,” Burns said. “We don’t lose a ton of costs when we lose a student. … So much of rural aid is per-pupil, if you’re losing pupils there’s only so much you can do to get ahead.”

The $4 million appropriated this year, the commission stated in its report, is underfunding rural school districts across the state. Additionally, the calculation formula does not take declining enrollment or “other evidence of disproportionately high per-pupil costs” into account.

“Unfortunately, the average grant amount from this appropriation is only $59,701 per district, which is not enough to cover a single teacher salary and benefits,” the report reads. “The unfunded needs of rural districts far exceed this amount.”

Burns noted fiscal year 2023 will see roughly $5.5 million in Rural School Aid, but individual appropriations are yet to be determined.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, who co-chaired the Special Commission on Rural School Districts, said the average funding amount distributed to school districts is “helpful, but not a game-changer.”

“There’s a real cash gap between what is needed and what we’re provided,” said Hinds, D-Pittsfield. He added that Rural School Aid is often “unpredictable,” which adds further difficulty to districts’ budgeting process. “It’s hard for schools to budget if they don’t know if it’s going to be there. … In fiscal year 23, we’re seeing most schools that qualify for Rural School Aid are not seeing an increase.”

At this point, Burns said Rural School Aid is not additional money the district can spend on extra programming, but an “essential” part of funding basic school operations.

“If that amount grew, our school could operate better,” Burns said.

Kinsella said it’s “important to remember that Rural School Aid hasn’t been around for very long” — it was signed into law in 2020. Still, rural schools are receiving a “double whammy” in that Rural School Aid is insufficient and legislative solutions like the Student Opportunity Act — which was signed into law in 2019 and provides aid for many urban and suburban districts — doesn’t provide enough aid for districts like Pioneer, Gateway or Mohawk Trail.

“One wants to be generous and say the state needs time to work out the kinks in this,” Kinsella said. “My colleagues in the gateway cities, I’m thrilled for them, but this should not be a zero-sum game.”

The Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts received a total of $119,926 across five schools — despite all of them being Priority 1 schools — in fiscal year 2022, which Superintendent Darius Modestow said is not enough to supplement other money received through Chapter 70 funding, the state’s general school aid legislation, and the Student Opportunity Act.

“While recent articles stated that schools on average received $59,000 in funding, Union 38 schools have received far less. Furthermore, Frontier Regional received a fraction compared to the other regional schools in Franklin County,” he said. “Given this, basic budget growth and cost-of-living increases mean more funding is put on the local taxpayers in communities with very little income outside property taxes. ”

Modestow chalked this funding issue up to the districts’ four towns falling into a “gap” in the funding formula, where a town like Deerfield is not “rural enough” or a town like Conway is not “poor enough” to receive extra aid.

Enrollment and demographics, Kinsella said, are baked into the funding formula, with no consideration as to how small districts function in tandem with shifting demographics in their communities — in Franklin County’s case, the population is growing older, while incomes are remaining the same.

“It is not a school district’s fault that our demographics are changing; this is not the fault of any small, rural districts,” Kinsella said. “The commonwealth needs to decide, does it want these wonderful small towns and villages to survive?”

Burns said a potential solution to this would be inserting some form of a rural school modifier in the funding formula, which could take factors like declining enrollment and demographic shifts into account.

“These are the diseconomies of scale that they’re mentioning,” Burns said. “If there could be a formula that took into account the reality that we aren’t able to run as efficiently as the formula assumes, that would be a wonderful starting place.”

Kinsella emphasized this isn’t a plea for the “state to save us,” but rather a chance for Massachusetts to conduct a self-evaluation, especially because the state has a reputation for its education.

“The commonwealth enjoys touting itself as an education state, a national leader. The inequities in the commonwealth are far greater than they are in other states,” Kinsella said. “We are hopeful. And we can be creative, and goodness knows small districts know how to stretch a dollar, but help us get onto a level playing field and then see what we can do.

“What we have now, as pointed out in the report,” she added, “is not equitable.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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