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Rural schools in Massachusetts still need funding, even with boost in Healey's proposed budget

School supplies in a preschool classroom in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Elizabeth Román
School supplies in a preschool classroom in Springfield, Massachusetts.

A $2 million increase in funding for Massachusetts' rural schools is a "good first step" to addressing the unique fiscal challenges these districts are facing, according to the representative who led a special commission on the topic last year.

Rep. Natalie Blais, D - Deerfield thanked Gov. Maura Healey's administration for allocating $7.5 million for rural school assistance grants — a 36% increase from last year's $5.5 million allocation — at a hearing on the educational provisions in Healey's fiscal 2024 budget recommendation on Monday.

Still, she said she was hoping that the governor would have allotted more to the fund after the commission recommended last year that the state jack up rural school aid to at least $60 million annually.

"While I wish it was more, I did want to take the opportunity to highlight the significance of this investment. It is the very first time that a governor has recognized the unique fiscal challenges facing our rural schools by increasing this line item in their proposed budget," Blais said.

The grant fund was introduced in fiscal year 2020 with $3.5 million budgeted for rural school districts, county agricultural schools, independent vocational schools, charter schools and regional collaboratives. It is intended to support schools that are experiencing enrollment decline.

In Massachusetts 67 school districts qualified for the special pot of rural aid in fiscal 2022, for an average haul of $59,701 per district that the commission said in July "is not enough to cover a single teacher salary and benefits."

In these rural areas with flat population growth, small town governments must fund increasingly higher percentages of their school budgets from a stagnant tax base, according to the commission's July report.

"Our rural towns are struggling under the financial burden of having to provide town wide services such as police, fire, ambulance and DPW and the increased cost of education. I stand on Town Meeting floor arguing to fund schools or fund the ambulance," said Sheryl Stanton, superintendent of Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont Regional School Districts in Shelburne.

Sen. Jo Comerford, D- Northampton, said the rural schools' financial situation is a "perfect storm."

Between 2012 and 2020 rural districts enrollment went down by 13.9%, according to the commission's report.

"There's still so much more work that needs to be done to ensure equal educational opportunities for every student in the commonwealth regardless of their zip code," Blais said.

The 2019 Student Opportunity Act has been touted by lawmakers, former Gov. Charlie Baker and now Healey as a historic investment in the state's K-12 public schools, but rural districts have not seen much of the $1.5 billion in new money that the law is phasing into schools' coffers, Comerford said on Monday.

"In western Massachusetts ... also in the Cape and other places in the commonwealth, we see a real struggle to see material benefit from the Student Opportunity Act," Comerford said.

The SOA was designed to direct the most funds to districts with high percentages of low-income students and English language learners. Districts in gateway cities have received a significant boost.

"We know that probably 96 districts get about 80 percent of the dollars," K-12 Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said on Monday. "We also know there's probably more districts, probably 115 or thereabouts, that are just getting minimum aid. So in a time of inflationary pressures, this is something we need to really keep our eye on going forward."

In her testimony, Stanton said she appreciates the Legislature and governor's commitment to fully fund the SOA next year, and how the money has helped gateway city districts, but that rural and declining enrollment districts are also "bearing the increased cost of educating our students."

"The rural commission report found it is fundamentally more expensive to educate students in rural districts," Stanton said. "Districts with very low student enrollment cost substantially more to fund on a per-pupil basis than typical school districts. Districts with 1,300 students or fewer cost 16.7 percent more to operate than the state average. And small regional, rural districts like mine cost 22.7 percent more to operate than larger ones."

Stanton called on lawmakers to fund the commission's recommended $60 million yearly appropriation for rural school aid. At Healey's proposed $7.5 million, Stanton said her district would get about $100,000 in the current funding model. If funded at $60 million annually, Mohawk Trail Regional Schools would receive about $800,000, she said.

Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler said the $2 million increase for rural schools represents the "idea behind the governor's budget" to "support the needs of all students."

Tutwiler added that other line items in Healey's proposal would also help rural districts, including an increase in regional transportation funding.

In districts that are geographically spread out, a significant amount of local funding goes toward getting students to and from school. Stanton said her district spends between $300 and $400 per day transporting students to school.

Healey's budget would increase state contributions to student transportation for regional school districts from $82 million to $97 million — an 18% increase.

Still, this increase will only cover 90% of the costs of regional transportation for students, with the remaining funding picked up by municipalities, Rep. Kelly Pease, R- Westfield pointed out.

"I see it's slated to be funded at 90% this year, which is fantastic because it's lately been funded, I think closer to 70% or 75%, and that's a killer for these rural communities. So I appreciate the increase, but I'm not sure if we're supposed to be at 100%, and if there's a plan to continue to increase," Pease said.

Riley responded that the state is supposed to cover 100% of these costs.

"I think this represents this administration's first recognition of the problem," Riley said. "My assumption is, they're hoping to get there in the future. I don't want to speak for the administration ... but obviously, this is a substantial increase to that line item."

The proposed budget is a "first step" and a commitment to continue to work with rural districts, Tutwiler said.

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