Editorial: Sparsity aid concept would greatly benefit rural schools

Published: 6/2/2017 5:37:50 PM

A provision to study how rural schools might get more state aid has been included in the Senate budget that was adopted last month. That’s good news for Franklin County’s struggling, small school districts.

The so-called “sparsity aid” formula was developed and championed by Mohawk Trail Regional School Superintendent Michael Buoniconti as part of an effort to deal with systemic inequities suffered by districts covering large geographic areas that are sparsely settled — which is the case in most parts of Franklin County.

The sparsity aid formula being studied would include such criteria as overall enrollment, enrollment per square mile, per capita income of the communities and other factors. The income issue and population density are particularly important in Franklin County, one of the state’s most rural areas and one of the poorest. Also, the county’s schools are experiencing greater enrollment drops than their urban counterparts.

The concept of sparsity aid has been pioneered in Wisconsin to help school districts that lack the economies of scale of a larger school district. Last year, Wisconsin allocated $300 per student in sparsity aid to 137 school districts. If Mohawk got $300 per student, that would bring an extra $300,000.

Buoniconti’s been advocating a more generous, tiered plan where some schools would get more aid than others. Based on his eligibility criteria, the Rural School Aid Program would cost the state about $20 million, with the money going to 50 traditional rural public school districts. Buoniconti said this represents about 0.32 percent of the state’s $6.2 billion public education budget.

He says there are about 80 rural school districts in the state that are in “financial distress,” in part because they lack the economies of scale. Mohawk spends a greater proportion of its available funds on busing, an expense that doesn’t hit urban school departments nearly has hard. Buoniconti has said about 32 states already provide such extra help for rural schools.

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, who is co-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has said the rural aid idea is worth looking at. The county’s other member of the House, Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, has supported Buoniconti’s idea.

The provision is currently a budget amendment presented by Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, Franklin County’s newest state senator. Hindshappens to have attended Mohawk schools and therefore has a deep appreciation of the challenges facing rural schools.

The amendment, which would require the Department of Early and Secondary Education to study the feasibility of a new aid formula and report to the Legislature by year’s end, needs to be approved by a House-Senate budget conference committee when it convenes this month. So we hope our legislators can persuade their urban counterparts to approve the study. It doesn’t cost money, and legislators would benefit from having the professional analysis of the plan and its implications for the state budget.

With the facts and analysis laid before them, we hope the full Legislature would see our need and address it.


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