State report: Lower enrollment, higher per-pupil spending

  • Buses wait for the new school years to start on Route 2 in Shelburne. Recorder File photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Mohawk buses wait for the school year to begin in Shelburne.  File photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland. February 9, 2018 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz...

  • Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland. February 9, 2018 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz...

Recorder Staff
Published: 2/9/2018 10:40:33 PM

A new state report confirms what many Franklin County area school superintendents have been saying for years: That enrollment is dropping, but per-pupil costs are rising; that rural districts spend 50 percent more per-pupil on transportation costs than other districts across the state; and, as enrollment declines, some districts are relying more on School Choice for revenue to support operating costs.

Those are some of the conclusions of “Fiscal Conditions in Rural School Districts,” a report released by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“The report documents the significant enrollment declines that have occurred over the last decade that have made it more expensive for rural districts to provide services,” wrote Jeff Wulfson, acting commissioner of education. “Certain provisions in the Chapter 70 formula are helping to stabilize funding levels in these districts despite enrollment declines, but steps need to be taken to put these districts on a more sustainable path.”

Wulfson went on to say that “changes to the Chapter 70 (local education aid) formula, reformulating how transportation reimbursements are determined, and providing resources and incentives to encourage districts to expand existing regional districts or share services … are all options that the Commonwealth can promote.”

Mohawk/Hawlemont schools Superintendent Michael Buoniconti said the report “is an important official recognition of the unique fiscal challenges that we face in rural Massachusetts. Additionally, (it) is a clear call to action by the Mass. commissioner that the commonwealth needs to address our circumstances.” Buoniconti added that the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition, which he chairs, “will certainly use this report as leverage to continue advocating for our communities.”

According to Buoniconti, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, spearheaded the legislation that culminated in this 22-page report.

“Just to be acknowledged is a huge step forward,” Buoniconti said.

For this report, the state defined “rural” school districts as those that have fewer than 21 students per square mile, even though some of our districts have even fewer than 10 students per square mile. The report determined there are 54 rural school districts statewide, with a combined enrollment of 26,219 students — or 2.9 percent of statewide enrollment in public schools. Between 2008 and 2017, rural enrollment dropped by about 14 percent, compared to a 2.7 percent decline in districts across the rest of the state.

“Rural districts generally have smaller numbers of students in each grade level and maintain a fixed number of staff to support a class at each grade,” says the report. “This contributes to a consistently higher proportion of staff relative to students, regardless of class size.”

“Rural districts now spend $18,678 per in-district student, up from $14,224 in fiscal year 2008,” says the report. In contrast, per-pupil costs in non-rural districts rose from an average of $13,138 in 2008 to $16,692 currently.

Between fiscal years 2008 and 2017, per-pupil transportation spending in rural schools grew by 36 percent — from $643 per pupil to $878 per pupil. Across the rest of the state, transportation costs rose from $431 per pupil to $587 per pupil.

School Choice

Schools that participate in School Choice are paid $5,000 tuition by the sending district, plus an additional special education increment for each student on an individualized education plan. There are 189 districts in the state that enroll school choice students, but there is higher participation in regions where there are rural school districts.

In some schools, School-Choice students make up half the enrollment. At the Rowe Elementary School, for instance, 59 School-Choice students in 2017 comprised nearly 45 percent of total enrollment. In Hawlemont, 105 School-Choice students in 2017 comprised about 31 percent of the student population.

“Most rural districts receive more students through School Choice than they send out,” says the report. “Other districts in the same regions of the state, even though they are not classified as rural, are also impacted. Greenfield, for example, now sends 303 students to surrounding school districts — about three-quarters who attend school in rural school districts — at a total cost of $2.5 million. Similarly, Athol-Royalston sends 359 students to surrounding districts, with 69 percent enrolled in rural districts, at a total cost of $2.3 million.”

Solutions

The report points to more regionalization of school districts or school administrators as a way to increase efficiency and lower the cost. The report says 42 of the 54 rural districts belong to one of 13 superintendency unions, but still function as separate systems, “making it difficult for them to share resources beyond … office administration.”

Separate districts and governance requires shared superintendents “to repeat the same tasks for each district, including collective bargaining, procurement, budget development, fiscal management and data reporting, undermining some of the efficiencies they are trying to achieve by belonging to a superintendency union,” says the report.

The report puts forward incentives to promote more regionalization and shared services. These include:

Building on the Department of Revenue’s “Community Compact” model, by awarding competitive grants so districts can study and implement regionalization and other shared-services models.

Providing data tools to districts looking to explore new regional models. A resource the education department is developing is called “Resource Allocation and District Action Reports” (RADAR), which will provide visual reports to help districts understand how they are using their time, personnel and money to support student achievement and how they compare to other districts.

Regional bonus aid. Recently, the department has provided bonus aid for newly formed regional school districts, of $50 per student in the first year, then decreasing by $10 for each of the next four years. The money is intended to help with transitional costs. It was not intended to be a primary motivation for districts to form new regions, but “other longer-term benefits should provide stronger incentives,” according to the report.


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