Report finds regionalization may only be ‘partial solution’ to challenges posed by low enrollment, less rural school aid

  • KINSELLA

  • BLAIS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/31/2022 5:54:24 PM
Modified: 8/31/2022 5:54:12 PM

This is the final story in a series diving into the Special Commission on Rural School Districts’ report.

As budgets increase and enrollments decline, some school districts are often faced with the difficult decision of whether to regionalize with another district.

This process requires town and school officials from several communities to work through the financial and logistical challenges needed to either add another district’s students to an existing one, or create a new regional district altogether. The state has “endorsed guidelines and framed policies to encourage the formation of regional school districts,” according to a 2010 report referenced on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s regional school webpage.

But can a school become too regional?

In Franklin and Hampshire counties, regional school districts like Pioneer, Mohawk Trail or Gateway already draw from a wide pool of towns across a large geographic range. If those schools were to join up with their neighbors, school officials and state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, who co-chaired the Special Commission on Rural School Districts, say serious consideration needs to be taken into whether the pros of regionalization outweigh the cons.

“I can understand the state’s interest in supporting districts and achieving economies of scale … but then there is the reality of these rural districts,” commented Pioneer Valley Regional School District Superintendent Patricia Kinsella. “At what point does regionalization become more costly in human terms than the people in these towns might want?”

While money could be saved, Blais noted the increased travel times to and from school, and the adverse effects that has on students, may outweigh financial benefits gained by regionalizing.

“Regionalization can be a tool for some districts, but it is not a panacea for rural schools,” Blais said. “If we’re regionalizing and kids are having to spend much more time on buses, they may not benefit from any additional educational offerings.”

The Special Commission on Rural School Districts’ report notes that regionalization may be a “partial solution” to the challenges posed by low enrollment and less Rural School Aid. The report identifies efficient reuse of unused school buildings and shared-service agreements as other potential cost-savers.

“The cost savings of regionalization alone are unlikely to result in substantial, long-term fiscal improvement,” the report reads. “Regionalization combined with the reconfiguration of school building usage, substantial increases (in) shared-service agreements, or redesign of school programming may be more impactful.”

While the state encourages regionalization, Blais said the commission received feedback from “residents and school officials that there were too many disincentives to regionalize.”

To incentivize it, the commission recommended the state provide $200 per pupil for regional school districts in their first three years of operation; temporary funding for positions needed to facilitate regionalization, such as an assistant superintendent or business manager; three-year cycles for DESE’s regionalization grants; and additional funding to new regional districts that may not qualify for Chapter 70 school aid.

Blais said the conversation around regionalization is usually “about funding and financially supporting districts that want to regionalize” and people discount the fact that the closed school buildings still cost towns money, which she described as “white elephants,” or expensive to maintain or dispose of.

On top of the financial implications of closing a school, communities have to deal with the painful process of closing a town’s school — through consolidation or regionalization — such as when Heath Elementary School closed in 2017 or when Leyden’s Pearl Rhodes Elementary School closed in 2019. Both Heath and Leyden have found second lives for their schools, with each town using the schools as offices for administrative purposes and emergency responders.

Kinsella said these painful processes aren’t unique to rural schools either, adding that during her career in Boston, she saw several neighborhoods that “truly suffered” when their schools closed, even when “there may be times when it is truly necessary.”

“There are some striking similarities in the distress that urban communities and rural communities feel when schools are closed,” she said. “That is a blow to the community. … There is a strong identity of having attended a certain school.”

“In our small towns, our schools are the hearts of their community,” Blais added. “Regionalization can sometimes have the effect of taking the heartbeat out of a community.”

Even as the Pioneer Valley and the Gill-Montague regional school districts examine regionalization with their six-town planning commission, Kinsella and Blais said regionalization may not even be necessary, if the state follows previous recommendations made by the Special Commission on Rural School Districts, such as raising Rural School Aid from $4 million to $60 million.

“There is some tension between the findings of that report and its call for equitable funding and the state’s ongoing push for further regionalization. If we increase funding, the need to regionalize greatly decreases,” Kinsella said. She added that a larger school district doesn’t always equate to more effective teachers, either. “The push to regionalize, to me, seems mostly about funding. … Size is not a de facto predictor of professional opportunities for educators.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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