Editorial: Schools are smart to seek help from their neighbors

Thursday, November 16, 2017

In these days of shrinking enrollments and rising school costs in Franklin County, paucity may become the mother of invention.

These two forces may be squeezing our rural school districts more from the inside than state education officials and state legislators have from the outside.

Saying local property taxpayers can’t increase school spending indefinitely, the leaders of at least three regional school districts are considering how they might combine forces in new ways that will save them money or at least slow relentless budget increases.

The current arrangement of regional school districts in the rural communities around Greenfield emerged in the 1960s and 1970s at the state’s urging when it became clear that county towns could not cost-effectively operate 26 individual school systems. The last of the current districts formed in the 1980s when Pioneer Valley Regional School District formed as a K-12 system from a network of four feeder elementary districts and a regional secondary school — much like Union 38/Frontier Regional School is still organized to this day.

In the past decade or so, state officials, worried that they can’t increase state education aid fast enough to offset rising costs, urged small western Massachusetts school systems to study regionalizing in ever larger groupings to shave costs. Those studies, when undertaken at all in the face of concern over losing local control, saw no significant savings to warrant changes.

A different view has now emerged at Pioneer Valley Regional School District, the county’s smallest district that has been struggling in the past three years with shrinking enrollment, rising costs and a school lunch program that is about $250,000 in the red.

This has led the Selectboards of the four Pioneer towns — Leyden, Bernardston, Northfield and Warwick — to support a school committee move to experiment with outsourcing its central administration to a neighboring school district. If they don’t save enough money, the system doesn’t work well, or they feel they are losing control of their children’s education, the Pioneer towns would have the option of backing out.

The Mohawk Trail Regional School District’s pro-active superintendent, Michael Buoniconti, keeps coming up with new ways to balance the books and maintain quality education for western Franklin County — from seeking tuition-paying Chinese students to organizing small town lobbying efforts to change state aid formulas in ways more advantageous to rural schools.

And now the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee and Franklin County Technical School Committee want to join with Pioneer in seeking a state grant to explore sharing services or merging in other ways. That could range from each district sharing services to combining the three districts into two — one for primary schools and another for secondary education.

The grants offered by the state’s Department of Revenue would give the districts up to $200,000.

School officials seem eager to get ahead of state education officials who always seem to favor regionalizing the smaller districts of western Massachusetts.

“There’s nothing etched in stone,” Tech School Committee Chairman Rich Kuklewicz was quick to point out at a recent meeting. “It’s really just, let’s go gather information.”

Change can be difficult, especially when we are talking about how our children are educated. And, too often, ideas that emanate from Boston-area legislators and administrators don’t solve our rural problems. It can be difficult for our city brethren to appreciate the scale of things here. Suburban Somerville School District has enrollment of 5,000, while four-town Pioneer’s enrollment is under 900, for example.

We applaud our local leaders for trying to get ahead of the curve by looking for novel ways to sustain public schools while maintaining their quality in times of ever-tightening budgets. For some of our districts, beset by rising costs, shrinking enrollment, charter school and School Choice competition, the status quo isn’t viable.

They may or may not find better ways to run our schools. But it’s smart to honestly explore the possibilities, especially if the state is willing and able to foot that bill.