Roundtable emphasizes funding difficulties for area’s rural schools

  • State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, addresses the Rural Schools Roundtable on Thursday at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Sheryl Stanton, superintendent of the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts, addresses the Rural Schools Roundtable on Thursday at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, left, and Buckland Finance Committee member Paula Consolo in a breakout room at the Rural Schools Roundtable held Thursday at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Hampshire Regional School District Superintendent Diana Bonneville, left, and Hampshire School Committee Chair Margaret Larson in a breakout room at the Rural Schools Roundtable held Thursday at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • The Rural Schools Roundtable held Thursday at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland went into breakout rooms for a more personal conversations between state legislators and school and town officials. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/24/2021 2:17:56 PM
Modified: 9/24/2021 2:18:01 PM

BUCKLAND — State legislators, school administrators and town officials convened at Mohawk Trail Regional School on Thursday morning for a Rural Schools Roundtable to discuss funding challenges Pioneer Valley schools are facing as enrollment dwindles.

Superintendents and school committees from the Mohawk Trail, Hampshire, Athol-Royalston, Erving Union 28 and Gill-Montague school districts highlighted the reduction of funding when enrollment drops and the challenges of safely transporting students without too much financial burden. In addition, officials from other area school districts attended remotely.

The roundtable was hosted by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who was joined by state Sens. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Jason Lewis, D-Winchester; along with Reps. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, and Paul Mark, D-Peru. The state’s Rural Schools Commission also attended the meeting and will use the feedback they received to generate an action report by the end of the year.

Sheryl Stanton, superintendent of the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts, who organized the meeting, said hosting this event was a good start in helping the Rural Schools Commission generate its report.

“It’s an important step,” Stanton said after the roundtable. “It’s important to hear those (experiences) as they shape their report and recommendations.”

The roundtable began with Stanton addressing the group about the inability of the state’s funding formula to accommodate rural schools. She said the formula takes into account schools with between 300 and 600 students, and many of local schools fall below that benchmark.

“It’s feels like it’s a one size fits all and it doesn’t fit our rural districts,” Stanton said. “So we essentially do not have the foundation to fund education. … A school is a school, so despite our enrollment, whether we have a grade level that has 10 students or 21 students, we still need a teacher.”

Stanton added that textbook education is not the only facet of school being affected by state reductions, as arts and other extracurricular activities need to be cut to make up the gap.

“I think one of the things that is most upsetting and cause for concern is when you start to reduce our expenditures in exploratory and enrichment programs such as music, band, art, chorus, STEM,” Stanton said. “These are places where parents, students and staff place a tremendous amount of value.”

The meeting separated into breakout rooms where legislators could have one-on-one conversations with school and town officials.

In one of the breakout rooms, the discussion revolved around the foundation funding Stanton had mentioned and transportation costs for schools.

If a student lives within a mile and a half of the school, the state does not reimburse the school for picking that student up in a bus, which Mohawk Trail School Committee member Budge Litchfield, a Heath resident, said is a “terrible position” for schools to be in. He said he knows of some students who walk on roads with no shoulders and sidewalks and across railroad tracks because the school district needs to save money and cannot put them on a bus.

“You’re being penalized for doing the right thing,” Litchfield said. “One size does not fit all.”

Athol-Royalston Regional School District Superintendent Darcy Fernandes, speaking remotely, said her district was on a list for “SOS” funding before criteria was changed and the district was no longer eligible.

“We have the highest number of students ever in our district and we don’t have that funding,” Fernandes said. “To shortchange our students is somewhat inappropriate. … Rural students don’t deserve less than kids in the city.”

Fernandes said there has to be a different approach taken to small school districts in the region.

“The solutions put out there don’t recognize the dilemmas rural schools are facing,” she said. “(We need to) think outside the box.”

Following the first breakout session, Blais told the Greenfield Recorder that the current situation rural schools are facing is “untenable.”

“Being here, having conversations with those on the ground who are living this is important for the commission and necessary for us to do this work,” Blais said. “People have been talking about this for decades. I feel the urgency. … We’re going to work very hard to make this right.”

Hampshire Regional School District Superintendent Diana Bonneville and School Committee Chair Margaret Larson said the lack of funding forces the schools to regionalize many of their programs, which fails their students’ “social and emotional” needs.

“We’re falling short in that regard,” Bonneville said. “I don’t have staffing or funding to do it at each school.”

Larson said the funding challenges spill out into the community and create a delicate balancing act of funding infrastructure or education.

“Trying to manage that process (town funding) and manage our education,” Larson said. “It’s a difficult conversation every year and it shouldn’t be that difficult.”

Gill-Montague Regional School District Superintendent Brian Beck said the funding formula disproportionately affects rural schools and something needs to be done to persuade parents to not use School Choice to go elsewhere.

“Kids are attracted to resources and opportunities,” Beck said. “We need an infusion to compete, to keep our kids close … to survive.”

After the breakout sessions, Larson told the Recorder that letting legislators know the exact needs of schools is critical.

“It’s raising the profile of rural schools,” Larson said. “The needs of rural schools differ dramatically.”

She said if funding issues are dealt with, then the other problems can be tackled.

When the meeting reconvened in the cafeteria, Hinds spoke to the group and highlighted the commission’s priorities to stop the “death spiral” rural schools face when funding is reduced. There are six subcommittees focused on transportation, insurance, local aid, School Choice funds, special education and regionalization of school districts.

“We really have to hit a home run,” Hinds said to the Rural Schools Commission. “It’s a generational opportunity.”

Hinds told the Recorder this is a good start for taking on the specific difficulties local schools are facing.

“We have identified a number of areas,” Hinds said. “It’s an important first step.”

He added this is a chance for a “second swipe at the Student Opportunity Act,” which increased funding for schools with higher percentages of low-income students. If these problems are addressed, then the quality of education across the state can be increased, which “is critical.”

“The moment is urgent,” Hinds said. “If we don’t have good schools, we don’t have strong communities.”

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


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