Area students head to Boston to lobby for rural schools 

  • Massachusetts State House FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer 
Published: 2/5/2019 11:07:32 PM

HATFIELD — As Beacon Hill eyes reforming the way the state funds public schools, a coalition of rural districts are asking the state to increase funding for rural schools.

Led by the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition, about 50 students from rural schools, including those from Hatfield and Hampshire Regional, are heading to Boston on Thursday to ask that a rural factor is added to the Chapter 70 funding.

Some students will be meeting with legislators, and others will be knocking on doors targeting legislators that represent areas with rural schools. Mohawk Trail Regional School District, for example, will be meeting with Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, D-Boston, and Senator Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

Smith Academy eighth-grade students Story Goldman and Hadley Szynal said they will be meeting with state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton.

“I feel that this is a crucial subject and as a student in one of the smallest school systems in Massachusetts, it is important and urgent to me,” Szynal said.

The coalition, which formed in 2016, says that rural schools face specific and different issues than their suburban and urban counterparts. Michael Buoniconti, superintendent of the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont Regional School districts and leader of the coalition, pointed to solutions such as Wisconsin’s “Sparsity Aid Program,” a 2007 initiative that provides some rural schools with extra money.

Adding a rural factor into Chapter 70 funding will be the coalition’s major request on Thursday, Buoniconti said. But he said they will also asking the state to help fund a pilot program to help districts and towns share services. Chapter 70 funding is the major program of state aid to public elementary and secondary schools.

“We want to operate more efficiently, we being rural school districts,” Buoniconti said. “This is not just asking for more money.”

Declining enrollment is a challenge for rural schools, the coalition says, as the formula that determines how much money the state gives a school takes into account the school’s enrollment numbers. But even as some schools shrink, many still have high fixed costs.

“We have seen a 10 percent decrease since 2013 … in a small district that’s a lot of students,” said Hatfield Superintendent John Robert. “That impacts our funding of course.”

Despite the drop in students, the district has been unable to cut down on its overhead costs proportionally.

The Rural School Coalition cites “uniquely expensive” transportation costs as another major challenge facing rural school districts.

The Mohawk Trail Regional School District serves an area of more than 250 square miles, for example, and Hampshire Regional schools cover about 1,200 miles of bus routes every day, according to that district’s superintendent Aaron Osborne.

“The biggest thing we’re advocating for is funding,” said Osborne, who will be taking several students to the Statehouse Thursday.

“I think it’s going to be a good opportunity for them to see the political process in action,” he said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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