April 24, 2017
The Small and Rural Schools Coalition recently reviewed its status and plans at a Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools (MARS) meeting. This is an ongoing effort by the Coalition to make the plight of small and rural schools (and their member towns) part of the school funding discussion across the state. As those of us who live in the smaller and more rural part of Massachusetts recognize, we are often an overlooked part of the state that seems to get more lip service than actual funding to address core issues. While some progress is being made in alerting state officials to the issues—and we’ve seen some financial assistance in terms of regionalizing services, developing economic plans, and the release of some funding for continuing the effort to bring broadband to the area—it’s not enough to ease our financial burdens.
Even without new funding streams, many of our towns would be better off if the state would just live up to past promises, for example fully funding regional transportation reimbursement and the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program. Instead, each year we advocate for increases in these programs and wait with baited breath to see the final result of legislation, which allows the amounts allocated for these programs to vary year by year based upon state appropriations. We know, for example, that the regional transportation reimbursement funding allotment has been going up each year but we also know that this money is being split between even more school districts. With more districts seeking reimbursement, and the fact that transportation costs are rising, the net result is that districts still don’t receive the 100% that was originally promised. If we even received a 90% reimbursement rate this coming year, all of our towns would have reasonable assessments. Town budgets in many cases would also be easier to manage if the state provided PILOT payments equal to what any citizen would pay in taxes for state-owned property.
In our own towns, we have a history of seeing a selectboard or finance committee talk about not passing Gateway’s educational assessment as a way to ‘send a message to Boston’. It would appear from the lack of any significant additional financial resources from the state that these messages are not working. The Gateway towns are certainly not the only ones facing these issues and one of the interesting items brought up at the MARS meeting was the potential to sue the state for additional funding based upon the idea that the state is essentially discriminating against smaller towns and schools. The idea of economies of scale when talking about sharing services (either town or school) may produce some minimum savings but doesn’t impact the fact, for example, that all students should have an equal opportunity to take Advanced Placement courses whether they’re in a high school of 200 students or 5,000 students, should be able to be engaged in a range of after-school activities, or be able to take the necessary coursework to qualify for the most prestigious universities. However, the state funding formula does not take the size of a district into account other than using a 5,000 student district as an ‘average’ district in determining finances.
Perhaps it is time to reopen the ‘unresolved’ educational equity issues raised in the Hancock v. Driscoll case of just over a decade ago and send a stronger ‘message’ to the legislature and executive branch that is a bit more difficult to ignore. The state has indicated that the Chapter 70 funding program is not funded fully and we know that this formula does not account for low enrollment districts, which leads to further inadequacies in funding and the potential charge of discrimination. In our area, we know that the state allowed Worthington to withdraw from the district using legislation that did not, and does not, account for the financial impact on both the district and the town of Worthington. At what point do we expand our current lawsuit to encompass the broader area of the state’s failure to act in equitably funding education for all students across a broader spectrum of schools and communities?