Editorial: Our schools need to control regionalization

Published: 2/7/2018 11:51:37 AM

If you think most of our county’s schools are already regionalized, you’re right — but only to a point.

In Boston, where the school population is about 52,000, they sniff at the size of regional systems like Pioneer Valley Regional School District, where enrollment from its four member towns — Northfield, Warwick, Leyden and Bernardston — totals fewer than 1,000. Gill-Montague and Mohawk Trail regional school districts also number just under 1,000.

To their credit, the regional school committees of Franklin County and the North Quabbin region can see the writing on the wall — as enrollments have declined, expenses have not and state aid has leveled off. Some local districts are seeking ways to provide quality education under that new reality.

Last month, the Pioneer School Committee hosted Steve Hemman, assistant executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools, who had a strong message for them: You should start looking at opportunities to share services, because things aren’t going to get any easier, and the state may push local school leaders into “doing something” because there won’t be big jumps in state aid.

Others have different ideas. A new group, the Massachusetts Rural School Coalition, spearheaded by Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti, is seeking more per-student state aid for rural schools, arguing their busing costs, among other expenses, are greater than urban schools. That those schools see a $9 million fix as making a “big difference” and affordable. Quabbin Regional School District Superintendent Maureen Marshall, however, said $9 million is “chump change” in a multi-billion dollar state budget.

Pioneer is at a turning point. Given that Superintendent Ruth Miller will end her employment here after June 30, the district is ripe for a different, cost-saving shared form of management.

At the same time, Gill-Montague Regional School District officials are using a $110,000 grant to study ways to collaborate with Franklin County Technical School and possibly Pioneer. This could include joint offerings for students and shared administrative services.

The grant would bring in a consultant to help the district determine additional ways to become “more ambitious,” according to G-M Superintendent Michael Sullivan, who hinted that the district may eventually consider sharing buildings with the Tech School, or moving toward regionalization with Pioneer, which, at the moment, is only considering subcontracting its central office functions of superintendent and business manager to a neighboring school system rather than a political restructuring.

Back in the mid-20th century, townspeople across Franklin County bowed to the inevitable and closed tiny town high schools like Powers Institute in Bernardston, Arms Academy in Shelburne Falls and Northfield High School, and replaced them with today’s mosaic of now familiar regional secondary schools and school districts.

Are we in for a new 21st-century wave of larger regionalization groupings? Hemman’s message was clear: Rethink your concept of regionalization before the state does the job for you.

While we doubt that Boston’s style of school management necessarily fits rural parts of the state, member towns of regional school districts may have to consider radical new ways of fulfilling our educational responsibilities to our children. The analysis should be thorough and thoughtful, but the decisions should not be rushed, or made simply because Boston-based officials think it makes sense from their perspective.

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