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Commission calls for $60 million in funding to support rural school districts

A state commission called Tuesday for a major funding increase for rural school districts.

The Special Commission on Rural School Districts voted to recommend at least $60 million in appropriations to rural schools to address issues with transportation, declining enrollment and costs related to school choice and special education.

The recommendation, made at the commission’s final meeting, would be a significant increase from the $4 million of rural school aid allocated in the General Appropriations Act for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, co-chair for the commission, noted that when spread out among the 67 districts eligible to receive rural school aid, the prior funding wasn’t enough.

The allocation would come out to $59,701 per district, which is not enough to cover a teacher’s salary with benefits, she said.

“It certainly helps and serves its purpose, but we really need a much more significant investment there,” Blais said in the meeting. “The unfunded needs of rural school districts far exceed this amount.”

The commission, co-chaired by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, was founded as part of the Student Opportunity Act to identify issues in rural education and present solutions to the Legislature.

Hinds noted the unique challenges of rural districts — including declining population and student enrollment in counties such as Berkshire and Franklin, insufficient state investment and lower tax bases to draw from. The panel recommended an annual appropriation for schools that have seen a substantial enrollment decrease over time.

“Often, these rural schools are located in regions that have been confronting a shifting economy, demographic changes, insufficient state investment as the auditor identified, and more,” Hinds said in the meeting, held by videoconference.

The commission includes members of the Legislature as well as representatives from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, among other organizations.

The group also made the following points and recommendations:

TRANSPORTATION• The committee called for a number of improvements to state reimbursement rates for regional transportation.

• The state should create a Rural School Transportation Reimbursement Account and offer more work to drivers within schools and towns to help retain them.

• The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should create a list of approved vendors for transportation services. It recommended funding to ensure handicap-accessible vehicles for school districts.

SPECIAL EDUCATION• Reimburse districts to accommodate special education students, including help for high-cost students and assistance paying part of a salary for highly specialized staff to help retain them.

• Establish a Special Education Funding Reform Commission to examine the adequacy of funding and timing of reimbursement.

REGIONALIZATION• Allocate $200 per pupil in the first three years of a regionalized school district’s existence, part of a larger effort to provide support for school districts looking to consolidate with others nearby.

• Support regionalization with funding for temporary positions for an assistant superintendent, assistant business manager, assistant IT director and assistant pupil services director for the first two years. The commission recommended the state provide assistance with some costs related to renovation or construction of buildings that will result in closing of two or more schools.

SCHOOL CHOICE• Cap school choice for rural districts. DESE should measure the impact of school choice, vocational schools and charter schools on sending school districts.

HEALTH INSURANCE• School districts should consider joint purchasing of health insurance, as spending has put an above-average strain on rural school budgets.

Matt Martinez can be reached at mmartinez@berkshireeagle.com.

News Reporter

Matt Martinez is a news reporter at The Berkshire Eagle. He worked at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, graduated Marquette University. He is a former Report for America corps member.

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