Frontier Regional district studies cost-effectiveness of school choice

Last modified: Friday, February 28, 2014
DEERFIELD — Since the early 1990s, Frontier Regional School and its feeder schools have allowed out-of-town students to enroll. But now, school leaders are questioning whether participating in the school choice program is really cost-effective.

“We’re in the beginning stages of a discussion on school choice,” Superintendent Martha Barrett said at a recent meeting. “Is it enhancing our educational experience or detracting from it? I do think it’s worth examining it.”

Several Deerfield Select Board and Finance Committee members raised the question Tuesday night at a joint budget meeting with the Deerfield Elementary School Committee.

No decisions on school choice have been made, but if the district decided to leave the program, it would continue to educate the out-of-district students already in the schools.

Barrett questioned the cost-effectiveness if a school department takes in too many out-of-district students and requires an additional teacher and other administrative costs as a result.

“When we started in the early 1990s, most schools got two to three kids,” Barrett said. “It was a nice pot of money and it didn’t impact the budget negatively. It allowed the schools to buy things they wouldn’t have money for. But then it became a real budget number.”

For each out-of-town student accepted into the district, Frontier receives $5,000 from the state. Likewise, for each student who goes outside the district, that money follows them.

For years, Frontier has come out ahead and used the extra money in the operating budget. This year, Frontier expects a net income of $121,427. The Frontier School Committee has proposed using the money to pay for two instructional assistants for $39,944 and 1½ teaching positions for $78,009.

The Deerfield Elementary School Committee proposed using its $132,774 in school choice funds for the strings program, special education aides, reading tutors, a math specialist and speech aides.

The Conway Grammar School Committee has proposed using $26,474 in choice money for out-of-district tuitions and aides.

The Whately Elementary School Committee has proposed using its $228,694 for special education aides, an art teacher, strings teacher, summer tuitions, and psychologist services.

The Sunderland Elementary School Committee has proposed using its $29,611 for three teacher salaries, five instructional assistants, Spanish instruction, summer special education programming and part of a strings teacher salary.

The question of whether Frontier can continue to pay to educate new out-of-town students is one it has to answer on its own, school leaders said. School choice is largely a western Massachusetts phenomenon. Few students in the eastern part of the state participate and the state Legislature is unlikely to take up the issue, Barrett said.

According to a study of enrollment conducted by the New England School Development Council, Frontier enrollment is projected to decrease by 140 students in the next decade. Enrollment at the Conway Grammar School is projected to decrease by 41 students. Deerfield Elementary School can expect 108 fewer students. Sunderland Elementary School can expect 99 fewer students. Whately, however, would only decline by two students.

“We have a good reputation,” said Barrett. “We have a high graduation rate. We’re able to offer a variety of courses that maybe smaller schools can’t. Those facts are appealing to families.”

There are now 1,583 students in the five schools. They include 311 students under school choice this year at Frontier and the four Union 38 elementary schools — Deerfield, Whately, Conway and Sunderland.

Most of the choice students are from the Gill-Montague Regional School and Greenfield School Department. This year, 104 students came from Greenfield and 91 students came from Gill-Montague. Frontier and Deerfield Elementary take in most of these students.

Of 617 Frontier students, 128 are there under the choice program. At the same time, 74 Frontier students left for other districts.

Here is the breakdown of choice students in the elementary schools:

∎ Deerfield has 444 students, including 89 in the choice program. Eleven students left the school for another district, but three of those went to Sunderland and six to Whately.

∎ Conway has 174 students, including 20 by choice. This year, five town students chose to go elsewhere.

∎ Sunderland has 206 students, including 33 by choice. This year, 17 students chose to leave for schools in Deerfield, Hadley, Hatfield and Whately.

∎ Whately has 142 students, including 41 by choice. This year, 12 students chose to attend schools in Conway, Deerfield and Hatfield.