Towns, schools unite over rural woes


Recorder Staff
Published: 3/12/2017 10:14:45 PM

BUCKLAND — About half of town budgets within the Mohawk Trail Regional School system are for public education. But some towns, including Russell, Huntington, Leyden and Pelham are spending 60 to 64 percent of their budgets on schools.

And, like Mohawk, their school districts have seen enrollment drops over the last 15 years, a flat level of state Chapter 70 school aid and rising costs.

“Financial sustainability — that’s the goal we’re all after,” Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti told town officials and School Committee members at a Rural Schools/Small Town Summit this week at Mohawk.

Buoniconti said regional rural school superintendents have been meeting monthly through the Massachusetts Rural Schools Association to look at common problems and organize for changes in state aid school funding.

“We need each other: Healthy schools, healthy towns. We cannot have one without the other,” Buoniconti said.

Jeff Singleton, a former Finance Committee and School Committee member in Montague, said there was “constant warfare” between the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee and the member towns until the budgeting process factored in assessment affordability.

“Affordable assessments changed the adversarial relationship,” he said.

“I think this is very much a rural problem,” said Beth Bandy, Charlemont Selectmen’s chairwoman. “The problems schools are having are mirrored in the towns.”

Derrick Mason of Russell said, “It’s vital that economic development become a factor” in resolving rural towns’ problems that have resulted in shrinking populations, declining school enrollment and “our problems with economic flight,” he said, referring to young people who leave the area for higher paying jobs in cities.

He said schools should teach entrepreneurship and promote job creation “so that our students take roles in our communities and not leave us. It shouldn’t be all us 50-, 60-, 70-year-olds trying to make things work.”

Need for broadband

Bandy noted that having broadband in the area would make a difference for students’ career options.

“We have a lot of businesses in this part of the state, but they lack support,” she said. “Broadband is the number one issue for all the towns.”

Those present agreed that working to bring broadband to the unserved hilltowns is a common cause for both towns and schools. Students need internet access for their studies, and broadband access could bring an influx of young families into towns.

One goal of the Rural Schools Association has been to get about $22.3 million in state aid to rural schools, which have higher student transportation costs and higher costs-per-student. Such aid would help about 80 school districts in the state, Buoniconti said.

Another initiative is to study consolidation of central office services — including payroll, technology, data base work — to save money. He said building maintenance, food services and transportation services could also be consolidated.

UMass partnership

Buoniconti also proposed a partnership with the University of Massachusetts Amherst to set up a “rural education research center” where graduate students and educators could research what other rural school systems across the country are doing to survive.


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