Forum on rural school district funding spotlights inequities

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SHELBURNE FALLS — Rural education advocates took aim at Massachusetts' 30-year-old "arbitrary" public school funding formula Monday night and ripped it up one side and and down the other at a forum organized by state Sen. Adam Hinds.

The public forum was held on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's recent analysis, "Fiscal Conditions in Rural School Districts," which outlines the challenges and underlying causes of budget shortfalls.

Once the forum was open to questions from the public, the focus of the event zeroed in on Massachusetts' school funding formula and how it short shrifts rural communities where education is more costly than in other environments.

They asked Hinds why municipalities have to fund a minimum of 17.5 percent of each school's foundation budget. If rural communities could have a smaller minimum contribution, it would help, people said.

"To me that's arbitrary," said Michael Naughton of the Montague Finance Committee.

"Why not look at 15 percent or 14 percent?" a woman asked from the audience.

"Half of our population is 55 years and older and on a fixed income," said William Knittle, of the Buckland Finance Committee. "Why doesn't the analysis take into consideration a community's ability to pay based on the age of the taxpayer?"

"Why not base a community's ability to pay off of the relative increase in property value over time?" asked Martha Thurber, chair of the Mohawk Trail Regional School District School Committee.

"The formula is a Rube Goldberg invention and there's no reason to it," said a man in the audience who did not identify himself.

How much money a school district receives from the state depends on the per-pupil funding minimum, a rate set during the budget season, and a community's ability to pay from local taxes. The state then makes up any gap in funding. The problem with this, rural education proponents say, is that Massachusetts gives a blanket minimum funding rate to each school district regardless of how much it actually costs to send that child to school. Due to geography and smaller enrollments, it is almost always more expensive to educate a student in a rural community compared to other environments.

"What I'm taking away," said Hinds at the close of the two-hour forum, "is that we need a budget amendment for certain schools with low population-density and much lower per-capita income — that it is a special and unique circumstance that needs to be addressed with additional aid per student.

Hinds said he is aiming to get an additional $1 million to $2 million for rural schools into next year's budget.

"I don't know what that's going to look like, but we're working on it," he said.

The state education department's report found what many people in Berkshire County have known for years: declining school enrollments are reducing public school aid from the state at a rate exceeding the cost required to educate and transport students — a situation that is magnified in rural communities by the great distance students must travel to get to schools and small tax bases that have seen little new business growth in recent years.

What makes the report interesting and useful is that it puts hard numbers behind local assertions about rural school budgets. This data combined with a recent state auditor's report that found flaws in public school funding, should be effective tools for legislators to use when advocating for fundamental, long term change, Hinds said to an audience of about 150 people gathered in the Mohawk Trail Regional High School gymnasium for the forum.

"This is incredibly helpful to have DESE [the state education department] say, in black and white, what we're all experiencing on a daily basis; and then say that's why we need a new formula for funding," he said

The event was attended by a flourish of local education officials and politicians including superintendents and select board, school and finance committee members. In addition to Hinds, speakers included Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Director of School Finance Rob O'Donnell, Superintendent of Mohawk Trail Regional School District Michael Buoniconti, and state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Deerfield.

Buoniconti suggested Massachusetts look into sparsity aid, additional money paid to rural school districts with sparse enrollments, populations, and tax bases. Some states, such as Wisconsin, have been applying sparsity aid successfully, he said.

"It is very different in rural Massachusetts compared to cities. We know that, but folks out [by Boston] don't know that," Buoniconti said.

Near the end of the event, audience members began to ask present members of finance committees to say how much of their money goes to public education.

Dawn Scapparotti, chair of the Goshen Capital Planning Committee, said paying for public education consumes 53 percent of the town's overall operating budget.

"We need more money, that's No. 1 and one and a half hours to talk about this is not enough," she said.

Hinds said, due to people's interest, he is considering hosting another education forum in the future.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, (413) 629-4621.


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