Hatfield: Case study in receiving end of school choice
HATFIELD - In Hatfield — the smallest kindergarten through Grade 12 district in the state — about a quarter of the student population are school choice students from other communities.
The town is well known for attracting school choice students with its small class sizes that allow for extra attention to students, said Superintendant John Robert.
In five years, Hatfield has collected $2.8 million from other towns through school choice. During that time, Hatfield paid $1.2 million as a school choice sending district and $350,000 on charter school tuition. That means a net gain of $1.25 million for Hatfield. You might think that would be akin to a school winning the lottery. But it is not.
Robert said he remains wary of how the money is spent — and how quickly it could disappear.
Still, there are benefits other than money that he sees in bringing students into the small district. The school system benefits from the diversity of the student population the town of about 3,400 residents is able to draw, he said.
“Students get a lot of individual attention here,” Robert said. “I think that’s why there is so much interest.”
In many ways, school choice is a balancing act for receiving districts.
They need to take in just the right number of students to fill classes, but not so many they have to hire additional staff or grow class sizes beyond an attractive level.
They need to use the $5,000 per school choice child that other towns send without depending on that money to pay for operating costs such as salaries because students could opt out at any time.
“That’s one of the cautions of school choice,” Robert said. “You have to be careful so that you don’t offset budget shortfalls more and more with school choice money that might not be there next year.”
Until recently, Hatfield was able to follow these guidelines and save school choice revenue for one-time capital purchases including retiling a floor, buying new lockers and refurbishing bleachers.
“Instead of going to town for ... money, we’re able to make some capital improvements on our own,” Robert said.
But next year, due to stagnant funding caused by the Great Recession, 10 percent, or $500,000, of the Hatfield school system’s budget will be covered by school choice revenue. Even with this expense, the district has a school choice reserve fund.
“We want to avoid eventually hitting that funding cliff,” Robert said.
And Robert does see some developments on the horizon that could detract from the number of choice students applying to Hatfield: Easthampton’s new high school and the virtual high school in Greenfield.
“As these towns invest in their own schools, there’s a chance that we may lose students,” he said.