Our Opinion: Rural schools aid money is finally flowing westward

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Finally, the money is beginning to flow from Beacon Hill to the strapped rural school districts of Massachusetts — the preponderance of which lie in the central and western part of the commonwealth. Hoping for a torrent of funds, they received more of a trickle — but the news is cheering nevertheless.

The lion's share of the credit for acquiring extra funding for rural districts and individual schools — even according to his fellow legislators — belongs to state Sen. Adam Hinds, who championed the cause for students who, thanks to inadequate state funding, were missing out on the "equal" and "adequate" education guaranteed by the state Constitution. His shepherding of the aid bill through the Legislature and securing the governor's signature earlier this year was a triumph of horse trading, leveraging and the other subtle skills needed to snag votes from non-stakeholders. For example, Wellfleet and Truro on Cape Cod — allies in the cause — brought home some rural education bacon of their own thanks to the Pittsfield senator's arts of persuasion.

The heavily populated eastern part of the state, largely comprising urban and suburban districts, has at last recognized the need to give the commonwealth's rural districts special attention. The economies of scale enjoyed by Boston schools, for example, do not apply for some of the schools making up the the Central Berkshire Regional School District. In Washington, Cummington and Windsor, there are fewer than two students per square mile, so transportation alone can be an enormous drain on operating budgets. Necessary staffing becomes costly when considered on a per-student basis.

Senator Hinds originally pushed for $9 million to bolster rural school budgets, which unfortunately was whacked by his colleagues to a mere $1.5 million. There are two important points to remember, however: Any extra money that recognizes the special needs of those districts is welcome, particularly where before there was none. Also — and most critical — the bill was passed as a line item, not a one-shot grant. This means that rural school district funding is now enshrined as a concept in the commonwealth's annual budget. This year's allocation may have been less than desired, but legislators from the Berkshires and other delegations with similar interests can band together to pressure for expansion of that sum in future sessions.

It's a small step, but definitely one in the right direction. Perhaps the most dramatic acknowledgement of the significance of the new way of thinking on Beacon Hill came from the commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Jeffrey C. Riley. At a Dalton ceremony on Monday announcing the aid, he said, "We have to do better by the western part of the state...I look forward to spending more time out here"(Eagle, Nov. 6).

Those are fine words, and we in the Berkshires challenge the commissioner to make good on them.

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