Stretched too thin: Rural school districts go on the offensive for legislative help

  • Carol Recore, a paraprofessional in the preschool class at the RH Conwell School in Worthington works with August Schneeflock, left, Maxwell Ricci, Aila Anastasio, and Greta Schneeflock. Six out of the 21 enrolled preschool students require special education services. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sally Imbimbo, a teacher who splits her time between Anne T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg and Westhampton Elementary, works with Moises Rodriguez, 10.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Timothy Kosuda reads to students in the combined 1st- and 2nd-grade class at the R.H. Conwell School in Worthington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Timothy Kosuda reads to students in the combined 1st- and 2nd-grade class at the R.H. Conwell School in Worthington. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • At left, Gretchen Morse-Dobosz, the principal and superintendent of the RH Conwell School in Worthington.

  • Timothy Kosuda works with Kiley Varley, Colten Cooper and Selina Morton in the combined first- and second-grade class at the RH Conwell School in Worthington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Timothy Kosuda reads to students in the combined first- and second-grade class at the RH Conwell School in Worthington. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Timothy Kosuda reads to students in the combined 1st- and 2nd-grade class at the R.H. Conwell School in Worthington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Timothy Kosuda reads to students in the combined 1st- and 2nd-grade class at the R.H. Conwell School in Worthington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sally Imbimbo, a teacher who splits her time between Anne T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg and Westhampton Elementary, works with Moises Rodriguez,10. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Timothy Kosuda gives Selina Morton a high five while working with Kiley Varley and Colten Cooper in the combined 1st- and 2nd-grade class at the R.H. Conwell School in Worthington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gretchen Morse-Dobosz, the principal and superintendent of the R.H. Conwell School in Worthington. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer 
Published: 3/2/2019 12:11:53 AM

CHESTERFIELD — As the state eyes changing the way it funds public education, rural schools are asking that the law take into account the unique challenges their districts face and establish rural school aid.

The Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition, led by Michael Buoniconti, the superintendent of the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont Regional School districts, went to Boston on Thursday to push for these changes to Chapter 70 state education funding on behalf of rural schools.

Across the state, enrollment in rural schools decreased by 14 percent between 2008 and 2017, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Rural school administrators say that, as enrollment declines, their districts can’t cut costs such as staffing and building maintenance, which leads to overhead problems.

For people who work in small, rural schools, this pinch can mean taking on extra duties.

“It’s juggling a lot of hats — that’s part of being rural,” Superintendent and Principal Gretchen Morse-Dobosz, of RH Conwell Elementary School in Worthington, said of her job.

In addition to being principal and superintendent, Morse-Dobosz is also sometimes a bus monitor and food-service delivery person. Once a week, she picks up a supply of food for the school from New Hingham Elementary on her way to work.

“I’ve ridden the bus as a bus monitor to cut costs … $20 per day can make a difference,” she said.

A report by DESE in 2018 on the financial conditions of rural schools analyzed data from 2008 to 2017 and found that most costs in rural districts increased at a higher rate than their suburban and urban counterparts. What’s more, the report found that rural school districts are paying more to educate each student: $18,678 per student compared to $16,692 per student on average in the state.

Westhampton Elementary School Principal Deane Bates said of her school’s enrollment: “I’ve been here 17 years, and we probably decreased by almost 30 percent.”

“For us, whatever school you run, you’re required to run,” Bates added. “If you have 10 preschoolers or 37 preschoolers, you still need staffing and equipment, and the cost is fixed.”

Jesse McMillan, principal of New Hingham Regional Elementary School in Chesterfield, said that at its peak, his school district had approximately 180 students.

“Currently, I have 129 students enrolled pre-K to 6,” he said. “We’ve seen a significant decrease over the past five years.”

Overall state aid increased by 22 percent between 2008 to 2017 for public schools in Massachusetts, though rural schools saw a state funding increase of just 4 percent.

Some schools, like those in Hatfield, have offset enrollment declines with school choice students, though it’s not a sustainable solution, Superintendent John Robert said. “We’re all competing for the same kids. So school choice, it’s not really a funding mechanism,” Robert said.

Transportation costs

Because the school districts often cover large and sparsely populated areas, transportation costs for rural schools are high.

Hampshire Regional schools cover about 1,200 miles of bus routes every day, according to Superintendent Aaron Osborne. The Mohawk Trail Regional School District serves an area of more than 250 square miles.

Rural districts spend about 50 percent more on transportation for students than the rest of the state, according to DESE.

RH Conwell, for example, sends some students with special needs out of district to Springfield, Greenfield and Pittsfield, according to Morse-Dobosz.

“They could be riding on a bus for two hours,” Morse-Dobosz said. The district spends more money on transporting students to special education programs out of district than it does for those programs’ tuition — and the state doesn’t reimburse any of the transportation costs, Morse-Dobosz said.

When New Hingham Regional Elementary looks for a bus contract, sometimes only one company will submit a bid, according to McMillan.

“Whatever they submit is what they go with,” he said. “If they have an increase, we have to pay for it. We don’t really have an option.”

Shared services

McMillan said he wants a technology teacher in New Hingham Regional Elementary, but he can’t afford one full time, and he doesn’t want teachers who are already stretched thin to take on more duties. Still, he said, “It’s really essential for us to teach our students digital literacy.”

He might be able to afford a teacher for one to two days a week if the town approves his proposed budget, so McMillan is in touch with other schools about the possibility of sharing a teacher.

Other schools are also looking to collaborate across districts and with their towns to share positions and services to save money.

Gateway Regional School District in Huntington was approached by another school about potentially sharing a business manager, but it didn’t work out. Now, the school is considering sharing an economic development position with one of the towns the district serves, Superintendent David Hopson said.

In March, Buoniconti is inviting town managers and superintendents to an event talking about shared services.

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

The rural factor

There are discussions on Beacon Hill about overhauling the state’s Chapter 70 education funding formula, the major source of money for public schools. The current formula underestimates public education costs, specifically expenses for health care and special education, according to a 2015 report from the Foundation Budget Review Commission, a state commission created to research school funding.

As the so-called foundation budget is being addressed, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, sees an opportunity to help close some of the gaps in rural school funding. He filed a bill that would amend Chapter 70 and force DESE to consider rural factors in funding allocations. It would give districts $400 per student every year to school areas with an average per capita income 115 percent less than the state average.

“We’re running the risk of providing unequal education across the commonwealth if we’re not doing a good job at considering issues rural schools face,” Hinds said. “That’s something none of us can stand for, or can stand.”

Many western Massachusetts legislators are on board. The bill is co-sponsored by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland and state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton.

Hinds became attuned to the issue about two years ago and credited Buoniconti for pointing to the Wisconsin sparsity aid program, which was the inspiration for Hinds’ bill. Started in 2007, that law gives extra aid to some rural schools.

Last legislative session, Hinds pushed for a $1.5 million line item in the budget to create grants for rural schools. Across the state, 33 districts received funding.

At New Hingham Regional, part of the nearly $18,000 allocated to the district was put toward implementing a new English language arts curriculum, which the school didn’t previously have, according to McMillan.

“It was very helpful,” Hopson said of the $157,048 in aid his district was awarded, which was put into technology training and improving school security.

This year, Hinds said he is trying to increase the aid to a $9 million line item. While schools welcomed the grants last year, building rural aid into the formula is the long-term solution, they said.

“That really is the permanent fix,” Buoniconti said. “Once that’s in Chapter 70, Chapter 7o will continue to go forward. We won’t have to fight for a line item every year.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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