Dearth of resources, declining enrollment stinging rural school districts

  • This graph shows enrollment change from 2010 to 2019, with Franklin County seeing a state-high 20.8% decline in enrollment. SCREENSHOT from the Special Commission on Rural School Districts

  • HINDS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/1/2022 3:18:37 PM

While enrollment and budget concerns batter schools across the state, the Special Commission on Rural School Districts’ recent report found rural schools face a particular set of problems that smother their ability to provide a similar level of education to their urban counterparts.

The report, titled ”A Sustainable Future for Rural Schools,” identified the pressing challenges that directly inhibit rural schools’ and towns’ abilities to educate their children, which has “left many students with less than they need and deserve.” Among five main challenges identified, the commission found that two of them — the lack of economic resources and declining enrollment — are the preeminent factors suffocating rural districts in Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire counties.

“The big thing we found is we needed to make it clear with people that there genuinely is a unique set of challenges for certain parts of the commonwealth and the current tools for school funding are not sufficient,” commented state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who co-chaired the joint committee with Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland. “All of these combined really identify that these are regions that need support and the implication that those regions have real impacts on state budgets and it’s time for us recognize that.”

As enrollment declines, per-pupil education costs increase and budgets get tighter, creating a snowball effect where programs, sports or staff roles need to be cut to ensure budgets are approved, which further drives students out of a district. These compounding effects bring schools to what Gateway Regional School District Superintendent Kristen Smidy calls a “fiscal cliff.”

“That enrollment piece is what we’re looking at,” Smidy said. “We try to do our best to keep our budget low. … The towns are very supportive, but there’s only so much money they have available.”

In terms of enrollment numbers, the report lays out a stark picture in Franklin County — Hampshire County was not included in the report’s graphic. While statewide enrollment dropped 3.8% from 2010 to 2019, Franklin County’s school enrollment dropped by a state high of 20.8%, with some individual districts facing even steeper declines. The Pioneer Valley Regional School District saw the largest drop with a 37.8% enrollment decline, or approximately 400 fewer students.

In that time period, the Ralph C. Mahar and School Union 73 District has seen enrollment drop by 24.8%, as 207 fewer students attended the school in 2019 than did in 2011. Superintendent Elizabeth Teahan-Zielinski said the district keeps an eye on enrollment as one of the main challenges, but the lack of state funding still tops the list. Mahar received $260,000 in Rural School Aid for fiscal year 2022, according to a state spreadsheet.

“It’s a matter of how the state acknowledges and incorporates the unique needs of rural districts within the funding formula,” Teahan-Zielinski said. “Any money is appreciated, but does it meet all of our needs? No.”

When enrollment declines, education costs still rise because of the state’s funding formula, according to the report. This drives a spike in per-pupil funding in districts with fewer than 1,300 students, which see an expenditure increase of more than 10.5% compared to districts with more than 1,300 students.

“When unit costs that are set too low are multiplied by low enrollments, the results are foundation budget category costs that lag behind actual costs,” the report reads.

As costs increase, districts and towns are being put in a difficult place where they must weigh education funding against public safety — in some towns, school district funding accounts for more than half of their budget. For Huntington, Smidy said the town needed to vote on a Proposition 2½ exclusion to fund its ambulance service and library because the district’s assessment was so high this year.

“It’s not something you can even control, it’s all based on this calculation,” Smidy said. “We now just need the state to help us come to a solution. There’s nothing the Selectboard can do, there’s nothing I can do.”

Teahan-Zielinski said declining enrollment is a symptom of the “sparsity of resources” in the area, which drives families, and money, away from the North Quabbin. Some of this is caused by the geographic sparsity of communities like the North Quabbin or Hampshire County’s hilltowns, where there simply are not job opportunities, public transportation or industries that encourage families with children to plant their roots there.

“I think people need to understand what that actually means,” Teahan-Zielinski said. “That’s involving things like access to quality health care and there’s no bus system. That’s a huge issue.”

Smidy said a “lack of buildable land and lack of job opportunities” has contributed to the lack of families moving to town, which even bleeds into staffing.

“Because we are in this kind of remote location, staffing itself is tricky. We’re still trying to hire positions for next year,” she said. “Gateway is a great place, but our salary is not as high as more urban or suburban communities and people don’t want to drive an hour into work.”

Hinds said issues like these are a “key piece for regional equity,” and school funding is just one of many discrepancies between rural and urban communities across Massachusetts.

To help alleviate some of these financial pressures that may drive families away, one of the key recommendations the commission made was to increase Rural School Aid from the $4 million appropriated for fiscal year 2022 to $60 million.

“We thought asking $60 million for rural schools was appropriate,” Hinds said. “Especially at a moment when we have so much money in the state. We hope we can make, and have made the case there is a real need to do more.”

Both Smidy and Teahan-Zielinski said they are hopeful the report opens the eyes of legislators on Beacon Hill.

“We continue to beat the drum and scream as loud as we can,” Teahan-Zielinski said, “so people understand it’s all of our children, whether they live in Boston, Lawrence, Petersham, New Salem or Holyoke.”


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