Auditor: For incentive on regionalizing schools, dangle financial carrots

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If regional schools in Berkshire County and elsewhere across the state choose to pursue potential mergers and regionalization, follow the money from the state.

That's the key and timely message from state Auditor Suzanne Bump. Her municipal impact study released this week urges state lawmakers and the Baker-Polito administration to dangle financial carrots to encourage communities to consider regionalizing and to combine existing regional districts into larger groupings.

She acknowledged that current state funding falls short and fails to entice communities to give up some local control of their schools.

"It really comes down to money," Bump said by phone from her Boston office. "The state just has to recognize the unique situation that regional schools are in. Unless the problems are resolved, students in those districts will be at an educational disadvantage."

She pointed to "artificial obstacles" that put regional school students at a disadvantage. Bump cited "archaic" state funding formulas, as well as operating and administrative setups that must be removed.

Echoing the pleas of many Berkshire school leaders, she called on the state to fully fund 100 percent of regional transportation costs, instead of the current 73 percent.

The research by the state auditor's staff also pointed out that local schools confront rising costs to place special-needs students outside their districts.

The auditor's report also proposes offering stipends to boost efficiency by reducing transportation costs, and to boost competition by letting regional companies such as the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority help provide transportation for potential regional school districts.

The study suggests planning grants to help current regional school districts explore potential combinations. The Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee, based in Great Barrington, voted last month to begin exploratory merger talks with the Southern Berkshire Regional School District in Sheffield.

Bump also wants state lawmakers to revise inconsistent funding formulas for students whose families opt for school choice.

"State government needs to become an active partner with regional school districts to improve the viability of regional school districts," she said. Every dollar in funding shortfalls from Boston takes away from support for classroom instruction, she said.

To drive home her points, her report spotlighted Superintendent Peter Dillon of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District and the Shaker Mountain School Union among three leaders running schools across multiple town and district lines. (The other two district leaders are in Groton-Dunstable in central Massachusetts and Wachusett Regional, northwest of Worcester.)

Bump, a Great Barrington resident who is moving to Easton, near Brockton, to be closer to family members, noted that she witnessed firsthand struggles with school district funding, such as the ongoing controversy in Great Barrington on whether to renovate or replace Monument Mountain Regional High School.

She also cited recent closings of several small schoolhouses in neighboring Berkshire districts, such as Egremont, Monterey and Cheshire.

"The Legislature and the state administration need to confront financial realities, particularly in rural districts, and the impact of changes like tuitioned-in students, charter schools and school choice," Bump said. She also stressed trends "not properly accounted for," such as declining enrollment and population, as well as challenges in the economy of many communities, and the resulting change in property values.

All those factors throw up roadblocks to agreements on operating budgets and capital improvement plans, the auditor maintained.

"I'm glad she's bringing attention to stuff we've been talking about for years," Dillon told The Eagle by phone Thursday. He commended the report's "thoughtful research that went deep for a sophisticated understanding of what we're facing. The ball is now in the court of the state's elected officials."

Regional schools are facing serious challenges, the superintendent said, including shifts in enrollments, school busing costs underfunded by the state, as well as state-imposed requirements on school districts that are either partially funded or not at all.

The Berkshire Hills district, which covers Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, pays $1.2 million annually for transportation costs, Dillon noted. But because of the state's partial payments, the district must cover $300,000 to $400,000 that could otherwise go to reading specialists and other academic priorities.

"The report is only as good as the conversations it provokes," he said. "If it gathers dust, it's not helpful at all."

But Dillon voiced some optimism that "there's an opportunity for the state to take some action, such as putting more money into regional transportation, and grants for technical assistance" as districts explore potential collaborations.

"Hopefully, we can learn from the report and move forward," he said. "The timeliness and depth increase the likelihood that people will pick up on it."

Under a formula adopted in 1993 by the Legislature, schools receive only $5,000 in state payments for each nonresident student, compared with actual per-pupil costs that can range from $15,000 to $20,000, while the student's home district loses the same amount.

Currently, Berkshire County's 32 cities and towns have 17 school districts and multicommunity school unions for a declining student population just below 15,000. The state has 58 regional districts responsible for about 107,000 students in 170 towns.

"Planning for the long-term educational and economic vitality of a community is always challenging, and can be incredibly uncomfortable," Bump said. "However, it is critically important. Ensuring student success in our regional school districts will require modernization of funding, governance, and operating structures, and will demand collaboration between state and local educational officials, and lawmakers."

Regional districts lose state aid to charter schools for transferring students, without seeing a comparable reduction in costs, the study noted. At the same time, the state is not fully funding legally required payments to cushion school districts in the early years of a student transfer to a charter school.

In order to make sure her report spurs action, Bump said she plans to meet with regional school superintendents and with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees to set priorities.

"Clearly, funding has to be at the top of the list," she said. "The Legislature has to make good on its commitments to the schools."

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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