Editorial: Pending trek to Boston by students, educators good for rural schools

  • State Sen. Adam Hinds at Mohawk Trail Regional School District, discussing financial hardships of rural schools. FILE PHOTO

Published: 2/22/2019 9:13:31 AM

It seems that pretty much everyone would like to spend more on public schools. But the hitch is questions like: how much, who pays and for what exactly.

Past and present leaders in the state Senate Education Committee would like to boost state spending on public schools, but so far the focus has been on helping poor urban schools that are underperforming. They no doubt could use more help, but so can the state’s rural schools, although for different reasons.

If the Boston area lawmakers can easily see the needs of their urban districts, we worry they won’t get — and more importantly — fund the needs of the rural schools of western Massachusetts.

Our local legislators do get it. They do understand our needs, but they are a tiny minority in the Boston-dominated House and Senate. So we need to give them the support they need to represent us to their fellow lawmakers.

That’s why we are encouraged to see students from our region planning to lobby in Boston for a change in the state aid formula to help not only the poor urban schools, but also the underfunded rural schools.

Led by the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition, students and educators from seven western Mass. school districts, including those from Hampshire Regional and Hatfield, are going to Boston next Thursday to ask state lawmakers to increase funding for rural schools by adding a “rurality factor” to the state’s funding formula, which hasn’t been revised in almost 25 years.

The current formula disadvantages rural schools because it links funding to enrollment. In many of the school districts in our region, enrollment has declined in the last two decades, leading to less state aid. Yet fixed costs like transportation — Hampshire Regional schools, for example, cover about 1,200 miles of bus routes every day — building maintenance and salaries remain, resulting in a high “per-pupil cost” to be born by local taxpayers.

Hatfield Superintendent John Robert notes that his district has seen a 10 percent decline in enrollment in the last five years. “In a small district, that’s a lot of students,” he said.

The same trend is happening elsewhere in the region.

“Our numbers, because we’re spread out, are declining,” said Pioneer Valley Regional School District Superintendent Jon Scagel. “We’re just bringing attention to this and saying, ‘As you move forward with new legislation, consider us out in Western Mass.’”

If the rural nature of our school districts were factored into state aid here, Scagel said, it would bring about $250,000 to Pioneer, for example — enough to keep open Warwick Community School, which is currently targeted with closing to save money.

But it’s not just about the money. Educators will also lobby legislators to help fund a pilot program to help districts and towns share services. It makes sense for the state to support any effort to help school districts operate more efficiently.

Showing up on Beacon Hill is an important step for educators and their students, and we’re encouraged that there are eighth-graders like Hadley Szynal and Story Goldman paying attention.

“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 us,” Szynal said.

It’s always easier to understand and empathize with people’s problems and point of view if they are standing there in the flesh, eye to eye.

For that reason we would recommend the students lobby legislative leaders like the chairs of the Education Committee, because lobbying our legislative delegation is probably preaching to the choir.

Regional schools did receive some much appreciated additional funding in this year’s budget, when Hinds led efforts to add $1.5 million for rural schools. Hinds hopes to increase that amount to $9 million in the coming budget year.

However, this is only a temporary solution. Adding a “rurality factor” would ensure rural schools have a better permanent source of funding, better suited to treating rural schools equitably.




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