Editorial: Charter school renewal a reminder of unique issues rural schools face

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Charter schools’ charters are up for renewal every five years, and Four Rivers Public Charter School in Greenfield faces its third renewal within the next three months, a milepost that is sending Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti to Boston in December to ask the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to deny its charter renewal.

“I ask that the board recognize our rural conditions and demonstrate its support for our traditional public schools by NOT renewing the Four Rivers Charter Public School charter,” Buoniconti said in a statement last week announcing his plans to fight the renewal.

Buoniconti contends that Four Rivers offers a curriculum similar to what is already offered at area public schools, and that its enrollment in the school year that ended in 2016 cost Mohawk at least $650,000.

“If this money had stayed within the Mohawk district,” said Buoniconti, “it would have enabled tremendous education opportunities for all district students while also contributing significantly to the district’s overall financial stability.”

In response, Four Rivers Principal Peter Garbus pointed to ways in which the 220-student secondary education charter school has worked with other districts to improve education all around. Garbus cites as an example Four Rivers’ senior students projects which, he contends, inspired the Capstone Senior Project requirement at Mohawk. Similarly, an ongoing science study group between Gill-Montague Regional School District and Four Rivers is a collaboration paid for with a state grant that both school systems applied together for. “It embodies, for many, the potential role that Four Rivers can serve in Franklin County,” said Garbus in a rebuttal published by the Greenfield Recorder on Oct. 25.

Buoniconti’s latest salvo is but one of his many initiatives to keep the problems faced by rural schools front and center in the minds of state legislators. Buoniconti spearheaded formation of the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition, which he chairs, for this purpose. The group is made up of regional school superintendents who collaborate to find solutions for problems unique to rural school districts, such as rising transportation costs and declining enrollment. One recent proposal is an online platform that lets school districts share services, creating an economy of scale and saving money.

Last week, the Pioneer Valley Regional School Committee joined 22 school districts, plus some selectboards and finance committees who are already members. The vote to join was unanimous. “I just think it’s really important to jump on board because we’re all in the same boat and the boat is sinking,” said Pioneer School Committee Chairwoman Patricia Shearer.

Few expect that the DESE will deny charter renewal for Four Rivers, and our purpose here is not to weigh in one way or the other on that renewal application. Instead, we want to support the idea that Buoniconti’s letter, which he hoped would be signed by other area superintendents, and his planned trip to Boston in December, serve notice that rural schools throughout Massachusetts face unique funding problems that still are not fully appreciated by the legislature.

Charter schools can be a valuable resource for some students and communities. But the public schools that serve all deserve to be at the top of the state’s priority list.