Editorial: Aid for rural school districts welcome news

  • Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Published: 12/19/2018 9:39:27 PM
Modified: 12/19/2018 9:39:36 PM

Per-pupil spending in rural school districts averages $18,678 per student in Massachusetts, compared to $16,692 per student in non-rural districts. Where does all that money go?

Busing, in a big way. Rural districts spend 50 percent more per pupil on transportation costs than non-rural districts. At the same time, rural enrollments are dropping in some of the state’s poorest towns. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Happily, the state has added a little sweetener to the recipe this year — at the instigation of rural legislators like Sen. Adam Hinds, who represents western parts of Franklin County, and Sen. Anne Gobi, who represents parts of the North Quabbin Region.

The sweetener comes in the form of an infusion from a new Rural School Aid fund established this year for the first time — for sparsely populated districts that need more state education aid than their urban counterparts, especially for busing.

In this area, the largest sums went to Ralph C. Mahar, Mohawk Trail and Pioneer Valley regional school districts. Mahar will receive $183,774; Mohawk will gain $132,932; and Pioneer will be awarded $92,593.

Other local school systems to benefit include: Hawlemont ($23,096), New Salem-Wendell ($21,657), Rowe ($3,913), Orange ($51,458), Sunderland ($4,840) and Erving ($4,153).

The introduction of Rural School Aid in the Massachusetts budget reflects an early success of the Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition, which lobbied for the new form of aid.

Mahar is a good example of how important this aid is for these schools. The district recently saw several cuts to services, some of which can now be restored.

“This is amazing news,” said Superintendent Tari Thomas, adding the money has not yet been designated for a specific purpose, but that transportation costs is one area officials are looking at.

With district towns like Orange struggling with increasing costs and stagnant economic growth in 2018, Mahar was unable to get the budget it initially asked for this year. The budget that ultimately passed was $12,846,979, a 2.27 percent increase over the previous year, but a few hundred thousand less than what the School Committee originally wanted.

Increased costs of special education and health care were particular challenges for Mahar, so the school cut late buses, its technology budget, health insurance and a private lawn-keeping service.

Losing late buses was controversial. At Orange’s annual town meeting, students and parents extolled the service for allowing students to stay after school to meet with teachers for extra help. Thomas said reinstating late buses is “one of the things we will be focusing on first.”

Gobi noted recently that services like late buses are especially important for rural schools, because otherwise students are at a disadvantage compared to non-rural schools.

The rural school aid formula in the fiscal 2019 budget takes into account two key metrics — student density and a town’s ability to pay.

School districts that qualify for Rural School Aid have fewer than 21 students per square mile in communities where the average per-capita income is not greater than the statewide income average. School districts with fewer than 11 students per square mile and incomes of no more than the state average per capita income, qualify for the largest amount of aid.

We applaud our local legislators who pushed for this extra and valuable aid and thank local education leaders like Mohawk’s Michael Buoniconti, chairman of the Rural Schools Coalition, which lobbies for such reforms.

Of course, there is a catch. Any district receiving money under the program must submit a plan to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by Feb. 1, outlining the steps it will take to increase regional collaboration, consolidation or other efficiencies over the next three fiscal years. State officials want assurances that the schools are spending their money as wisely as possible — which seems a reasonable and prudent request.

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