More state aid for rural schools this year

  • A Mohawk Trail Regional School District bus leaves the high school in Buckland. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/23/2019 2:12:22 AM
Modified: 8/23/2019 2:12:10 AM

Sen. Adam Hinds asked for and received $1 million more from the state’s Rural School Aid grant program this year, increasing the budget to $2.5 million and leaving superintendents throughout Franklin County waiting to see just how much of the pie they’ll get.

“The fight for equal opportunity through education means we need to ensure all of our schools receive the state support they need,” said Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

Hinds, who serves on the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, has worked to build awareness and support for the needs of rural schools and the grant program that provides financial assistance to the state’s most rural schools, several of which are in Franklin County.

The Rural School Aid grant program helps school districts with low populations and lower-than-average incomes address fiscal challenges and take steps to improve efficiency. The grant is administered by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. It is a funding source separate from Chapter 70 aid and intended to supplement school aid.

School districts that qualify for Rural School Aid have fewer than 21 students per square mile in communities where the average per-capita income is not greater than the statewide income average. School districts with less than 11 students per square mile and incomes of no more than the state average per capita income qualify for the largest amount of aid.

School administrators decide how to use the funding to help them face fiscal challenges. Last year, several Franklin County districts benefited, like Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District, which received $183,774; Mohawk Trail Regional School District, which received $132,932; and Pioneer Valley Regional School District, which received $92,593. Several other schools across the county received smaller amounts.

Mohawk Trail Regional School District Superintendent Michael Buoniconti said he won’t know how much more his district is getting this year until late August or later. He said the focus, so far, has been on getting more money, but now, it should be on including Rural School Aid in Chapter 70, as opposed to it being its own entity.

“We’re definitely headed in the right direction,” he said. “But the state has labeled certain districts rural and then it allocates money the way it sees fit (as opposed to creating a formula like Chapter 70 uses). We know our districts and what they need. The state must now define ‘rural’ and then fund accordingly.”

The Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition, of which Buoniconti is chairman, wants the state education funding formula to add a rurality factor that would provide the same level of support that Wisconsin provides its rural schools — $400 per student. At that rate, it would cost about $15 million annually.

Buoniconti said it would be a game changer for the rural student population, an investment the state should be willing to make. He said it is the moral obligation of the state and its taxpayers.

A Senate bill presented by Hinds would establish a rurality factor in the state education funding formula.

Buoniconti said since 2000, the combination of declining student enrollment, flat state education aid and persistently rising costs has resulted in a chronic financial and educational crisis in rural Massachusetts.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Massachusetts is the least rural state in the U.S., so Franklin County, which is one of the most rural areas in the state, has essentially been ignored, he said.

“Our conditions are dramatically different and include significant costs,” Buoniconti told senators earlier this year. “And, if a rurality factor is not factored into the funding formula, some 40,000 rural students within 65 public school districts across the commonwealth, from Berkshire County to Cape Cod, will be left even further behind.”

He told senators that Mohawk Trail is among the districts in “great danger.” He said Mohawk Trail is the “canary in the coal mine.”

Buoniconti said the state needs to address the fundamental lack of financial sustainability plaguing its rural public schools. He said Mohawk Trail encompasses 250 square miles and is geographically the largest preschool to 12th grade school district in Massachusetts.

To give a sense of what that means, Buoniconti said if you combine the 10 most populous public school districts into one (Boston, Springfield, Worcester, Brockton, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Lawrence, Newton and Fall River), those 10 urban districts combined would operate in an area smaller than the Mohawk Trail district. If those 10 districts were consolidated into one, it would serve 200,000 students in a geographic space smaller than the space in which Mohawk Trail serves its 1,000 students. He said rural Mohawk Trail is the definition of diseconomy of scale.

Geography makes busing an issue, he said. In April 2014, the Heath Bridge within the Mohawk Trail district was closed for repairs and just reopened in January. For five years, Mohawk Trail was forced to contract an additional bus, because, by law, it had to ensure its students’ time on the bus wouldn’t exceed one hour and 15 minutes, and the detours buses would have had to make would have exceeded that time. The cost of the additional bus amounted to more than $200,000 during that time, he said.

Earlier this year, Rep. Natalie Blais took a long ride on a school bus to better understand what children endure to get to and from school each day. The 1st Franklin District Democrat from Sunderland rode from Chesterfield to Hampshire Regional High School to raise awareness about the amount of time children in regional schools across her district are spending on school buses. She said she also wanted to make a statement about the importance of school transportation reimbursement, which has been part of the Rural School Aid discussion.

“In fiscal year 2018, for instance, regional transportation for Mohawk Trail Regional School District was underfunded by $290,727,” she said.

As the state pushed for the regionalization of schools, Blais said it made a promise to reimburse transportation at 100 percent, and that promise hasn’t been kept. Instead, the state is reimbursing schools at a rate of 75 percent or less, leaving rural school districts to fund the rest.

The state currently has 58 academic regional school districts, including five in Franklin County — Mahar in Orange, Frontier in South Deerfield, Mohawk Trail in Shelburne, Pioneer in Northfield and Gill-Montague in Turners Falls.

Reach Anita Fritz at
413-772-0261, ext. 269 or
afritz@recorder.com.




Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906

 

Copyright © 2019 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy