Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rural Massachusetts communities tangle over consolidating school districts

School officials in a rural Massachusetts county have called a special meeting to respond to an editorial in The Boston Globe, which said they are too numerous and "serve at the pleasure of small town officials unwilling to sacrifice even a modicum of control over their schools, even if doing so would benefit their children." The editorial notes the New England School Development Council said placing all the schools in Franklin County in western Massachusetts under one district would save $2.8 million in administrative costs. The Globe contended, "No place in Massachusetts is in greater need of regionalization than the 26 communities of Franklin County — and nowhere is the upside of combining forces more evident."

Franklin County (Wikipedia map) is no longer a governmental entity but provides a regional identity for 26 communities with nine school superintendents, "30 school principals and 20 school committees spread across a county with only 9,750 students, according to the editorial," reports Mackenzie Issler of the Greenfield Recorder. The county's School Committee Caucus, which was formed to present a unified voice for the county's schools,  has not taken a position on regional school systems, but member Marcia Day told Issler, "It has historically been opposed to the concept of top-down decisions by the state education department about whether and how districts should collaborate or consolidate."

Lawmakers recently convened in Boston for the first meeting of a legislative commission tasked with "finding ways to bring about more collaboration and regionalization of small, rural school districts like those in Franklin County," Issler writes. Leverett School Committee Chairman Farshid Hajir, the only representative from Western Massachusetts on the commission, brought up the Globe editorial at the meeting, noting "the insensitive, derogatory and untrue characterization of its school districts and school committees." The chair of that commission warned that regionalization is still on the agenda for state legislators, and if "local schools don't move toward more collaboration and regionalization themselves, the state will likely step in," Issler writes.

Some locals argue that money won't be saved by school district consolidation and funds would be better saved by increased collaboration among the small schools. "But, with many fearing forced regionalization and the loss of local control, a caucus of school committee members was formed to look at these options and, seemingly, collaboration has been more widely accepted than regionalizing," Issler writes. "A study group led by local lawmakers wrapped up its work in 2009 with a report that outlined how regionalizing could save money by spending less on administrators." (Read more)


Anonymous said...

Decades ago, the Commonwealth urged small towns to form regional school districts with the promise that the state would fully reimburse the municipalities for the regional school transportation funding. This has never happened at the 100% reimbursement level. I live in a district with five rural towns which have very little in the way of a commercial-industrial local tax base to pick up the slack. Rubbing salt into this fiscal wound is that the lion's share of state-owned land (mostly state forest and park properties) are also located in the rural western part of the state. The Commonwealth is also supposed to reimburse the host towns for 100% of Payment In-Lieu of Taxes (PILOT funds) but this never happens because the power structure in the state Legislature is concentrated in the urban, eastern part of the state. So the Boston Globe rant is just more "metro-think" from city slickers who think they know better than us hilltowners how to run things out here in the boondocks.

Nancy said...

If Massachusetts truly thinks they can save on administrative costs by consolidating school systems, I hope they have enough sense to actually say that in whatever legislation is passed.

Maine mandated school consolidation in 2007 as part of the governor's budget in order to "save" $36 million. Of course that didn't happen in real life, just on paper, but the ramifications for rural areas of the state have been significant. The savings were supposed to come from having fewer administrators, but the law did not require fewer people in central office positions, so very few jobs were eliminated.

For more on the history and angst on Maine school consolidation, go to: