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Editorial: Senate provides help for rural school districts

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Cash-strapped rural schools in western Massachusetts won a partial victory on Beacon Hill this month as the state Senate agreed to send more money their way.

It unanimously passed a bill that would change how state aid to public schools is calculated, directing more money to underfunded areas like special education, children living in poverty, English learners and health costs.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, whose district includes Hampshire County Hilltowns, described the measure as a “key education reform bill to update the state’s 25-year-old funding formula.”

Another bill pushed by Hinds also passed the Senate: a Rural School Aid bill, adding $1.5 million in aid to rural schools for next school year — supplemental “sparsity aid” that area school leaders have been seeking for some time.

The new general school aid formula would implement recommendations of the bipartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission in late 2015, which found that the formula by which state aid is distributed among public school districts drastically underestimates education costs.

The result, according to Hinds, is deep cuts to classrooms and critical programs, and one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation. The problem affects poorer districts more than richer ones.

The formula, originally set in the 1993 Education Reform Act, has failed to keep up with rising fixed costs in health care and special education. Hinds said it also underestimated the cost of teaching students who are learning English and those living in poverty, creating a gap in Chapter 70 education aid that approaches $2 billion a year.

That bill is pending in the House of Representatives in the Rules Committee. If the House agrees to the funding formula changes, to meet the promise of the bill, the Legislature would need to put more education money into the budget for next school year.

The separate rural aid plan, as adopted by the Senate, would enable school districts with fewer than 10 students per mile to receive an extra $100 per student in the budget year that begins in July. Hinds said 40 school districts would be eligible to receive this aid.

Hinds hopes to expand the rural aid program in future years.

The “sparsity aid” amendment was based on the findings of a January report on the fiscal conditions in rural school districts by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and bolstered by a study by the state auditor that called for major updates in the structure and financing of regional school districts like those in western Massachusetts. The idea has been vigorously promoted by Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education report concluded that rural schools in the state spend 50 percent more on school transportation, spending more per pupil for teaching and paraprofessionals because of enrollments that are declining.

We hope that Hinds and area House members will succeed in rallying enough statewide support to make both of these reform measures reality. Both would go a long way toward stabilizing the finances of our local public schools, whose problems are too easily overlooked by lawmakers from urban districts.

Most public schools in rural areas have suffered from a chronic financial squeeze because of the inequities and inadequacies of state aid.

“Rural schools face significant and unique fiscal challenges due to population decline, density and ability to pay,” said Hinds. “If we do not do something to help these school districts financially, Massachusetts is at risk of providing unequal education opportunities for children who live in rural areas. That cannot be allowed to happen.”

Now, we hope the House acts to make these two measures reality.