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Report: Massive financial infusion needed for Massachusetts rural schools

Mohawk Trail Regional School in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
Nancy Eve Cohen
Mohawk Trail Regional School in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.

A 15-fold increase in annual state aid toward rural school districts headlines a legislative panel's recommendations after more than a year of work, and one top senator said he plans to push for at least some funding in the end-of-term flurry over the next few weeks.

Lawmakers, K-12 school leaders and academic experts voted unanimously Tuesday to send the Legislature a batch of suggestions for helping districts in the most sparsely populated parts of Massachusetts navigate financially perilous straits amid periods of declining enrollment, shaky tax revenues, and high costs to transport students.

The first of eight recommendations calls on the Legislature to jack up rural school aid, a relatively new line item in the state's annual budget that totaled $4 million last year, to at least $60 million annually.

Sixty-seven Massachusetts school districts qualified for the special pot of rural aid in fiscal year 2022, an average haul of $59,701 per district that the commission said "is not enough to cover a single teacher salary and benefits."

"It certainly helps, and it serves that purpose, but we really need a much more significant investment there. The unfunded needs of rural districts far exceed this amount," said Rep. Natalie Blais of Sunderland, who chaired the commission alongside Sen. Adam Hinds of Pittsfield.

The commission also suggested that the Legislature rethink the formula for steering additional dollars to rural schools, arguing that districts with particularly low enrollments are underfunded and need a larger share of available aid.

Another funding proposal the panel backed calls for expanding financial support when districts merge.

The state currently provides $50 per student in bonus aid to a new regional school district in its first year, then reduces that amount by $10 per student in each of the following four years. The commission called for offering $200 per pupil for each of the first three years of operation in a new regional district.

"There are too many disincentives to regionalization, and we really need to identify ways to incentivize regionalization," Blais said.

The House and Senate sought to tackle disparities in how state dollars flow to schools with a 2019 law known as the Student Opportunity Act, which -- in addition to creating the rural schools commission -- charted a path to increase K-12 funding by $1.5 billion over seven years.

But the commission's report cautions that in the wake of that landmark reform, "the fiscal challenges experienced by regional school districts and rural districts generally have not decreased."

Hinds, who will leave office in January after launching an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor, said he will try to secure additional funding for rural districts over the course of July.

Lawmakers are set to debate an economic development bill and other spending proposals, all while Beacon Hill sits atop $2.3 billion in unspent American Rescue Plan Act funds and anticipates a budget surplus of more than $3 billion.

"This is a very considerable, very significant contribution to how we address the gaps confronted by rural schools," Hinds said of the report. "I, for one, will be trying to take advantage of this moment where we have a lot of cash on hand to move those first recommendations far north of where they currently are. That's my first priority in the coming weeks before the end of the session."

Transportation also poses a major challenge for less populated districts, whose students are more spread out and face longer trips to and from school along roadways that might not be well-maintained or accessible in bad weather.

Ellen Holmes, a member of the Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School Committee who sat on the legislative commission, said Tuesday that travel is even longer for students who get into programs in the eastern part of the state.

"I can barely get to Leominster, Massachusetts, in 45 minutes on a clear day, and Route 2 has never been known to have a real clear day, except during the pandemic when no one's able to drive," Holmes said. "If you're going, especially from western Massachusetts to some of these distinct programs, you're just never going to get there, one-way, within an hour logically."

Commissioners said the Legislature should launch and "fully fund" a new account to reimburse rural schools for the costs of school transportation, loosen restrictions on transportation vendor contracts for schools to promote more competition, and create incentives for hiring more drivers, among other possible steps.

Other recommendations in the report include additional special education funding for rural districts with high rates of students requiring those services, using a three-year enrollment average in foundation budgets to spread out the impact of declining student populations, and helping districts share services such as professional development.

Members suggested a handful of wording changes during Monday's meeting dealing with how to define dangerous roadways, further studying the impact of school choice, exploration of additional transportation regulatory reforms, and Mass. School Building Authority regulations.

Three members of the panel -- education secretary designee Tom Moreau, Division of Local Services appointee Sean Cronin, and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education designee Jay Sullivan -- voted present on the final report. All others cast votes in support.

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