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Editorial: New ideas for regional schools

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Monday, February 12, 2018

If you think many of the schools in the rural portions of Hampshire and Franklin counties already are regionalized, you’re right — but only to a point.

In Boston, where the school population is about 52,000, they sniff at the size of regional districts in western Massachusetts, where several have enrollments of less than 1,000 students. Among those is Gateway Regional, based in Huntington, which also takes students from Blandford, Chester, Middlefield, Montgomery and Russell.

To their credit, the regional school committees in these rural areas can see the writing on the wall — as enrollments have declined, expenses have not and state aid has leveled off. Some local districts are seeking ways to provide quality education under that new reality.

Last month, the School Committee for the Pioneer Valley Regional District based in Northfield hosted Stephen Hemman, assistant director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools. He delivered a strong message: You should start looking at opportunities to share services, because things aren’t going to get any easier, and the state may push local school leaders into “doing something” because there won’t be big increases in state aid.

Others have different ideas. A new group, the Massachusetts Rural School Coalition, spearheaded by Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, is seeking more per-student state aid for rural schools, arguing that their busing costs, among other expenses, are greater than urban schools. Those schools see a $9 million fix as making a big difference.

Pioneer is at a turning point. Given that Superintendent Ruth Miller will end her employment here after June 30, the district is ripe for a different, cost-saving shared form of management.

At the same time, Gill-Montague Regional School District officials are using a $110,000 grant to study ways to collaborate with Franklin County Technical School in Turners Falls and possibly Pioneer. This could include joint offerings for students and shared administrative services.

The grant would pay for a consultant to help the district determine additional ways to become “more ambitious,” according to Gill-Montague Superintendent Michael Sullivan, who hinted that the district may eventually consider sharing buildings with the tech school, or moving toward regionalization with Pioneer. That district now is considering subcontracting its central office functions of superintendent and business manager to a neighboring school system rather than a political restructuring.

The benefits of regionalization are not limited to rural school districts. The Amherst and Pelham school committees in January were awarded a $21,500 state grant to study the possible regionalizing of the towns’ elementary schools to save money.

Each town voted at their fall Town meeting last year to establish regional school district planning committees. The grant will support the work of those committees.

“We will have necessary support to explore regionalization and to address any concerns both towns may have,” said Michael Morris, superintendent for the Amherst-Pelham Regional District that already oversees a middle school and high school, which also serve students from Leverett and Shutesbury.

In the mid-20th century, towns in Hampshire and Franklin counties closed their small high schools and replaced them with today’s mosaic of now familiar regional secondary schools and school districts. Williamsburg High School closed in 1971 when the five-town Hampshire Regional District was established.

Are we in for a new 21st-century wave of larger regionalization groupings? Hemman’s message was clear: Rethink your concept of regionalization before the state does the job for you.

While we doubt that Boston’s style of school management necessarily fits rural parts of the state, member towns of regional school districts may have to consider radical new ways of fulfilling our educational responsibilities to our children.

The analysis should be thorough and thoughtful, but the decisions should not be rushed, or made simply because Boston-based officials think it makes sense from their perspective.