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Seeking equity in funding for rural schools

Date Published: April 16, 2019

Author: Michael A. Buoniconti

Thank you for this opportunity to testify before you on this important issue – equity for our public school children in rural Massachusetts. I ask for your support of Bill S.2185, which would establish a rurality factor in the Massachusetts education funding formula.

Since the year 2000, the combination of declining student enrollment, flat state education aid, and persistently rising costs has resulted in a chronic financial and educational crisis in rural Massachusetts. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Massachusetts is the least rural state in the U.S. Given our representative state government, it is no surprise that rural public education interests have been essentially ignored.

We, in rural Massachusetts, simply do not have the numbers necessary to swing votes on Beacon Hill. Nonetheless, we are here today to try to convince you that rural public schools in the Commonwealth do not operate in conditions found in urban and suburban communities.

Our conditions are dramatically different and include significant costs. And, if a rurality factor is not factored into the funding formula, some 40,000 rural students within 65 public school districts across the Commonwealth, from Berkshire County to Cape Cod, will be left even further behind.

We are not here to point blame at anyone for the crisis facing rural Massachusetts public schools. We understand that our circumstance is simply a function of voter numbers.

Rurals are a small voting bloc. We are tiny compared to the suburbs and cities, but we do represent nearly 10 percent of the total student population. And, about half of this rural student population attend school in districts that are financially unsustainable and in varying stages of crisis.

Mohawk is among those in great danger. We are the canary in the coal mine.

Let me be clear. The Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition supports the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission. We do. However, we must alert you that these recommendations, even if fully funded, will not, I repeat, will not address the fundamental lack of financial sustainability plaguing our rural public schools. At best, it would slow our inevitable slide toward financial and educational bankruptcy.

How can we convince you? I’ll share one fact about Mohawk. Encompassing over 250 square miles, Mohawk is geographically the largest PK-12 public school district in Massachusetts.

To give you a sense of what that means… If you were to combine the 10 most populous public school districts into one (Boston, Springfield, Worcester, Brockton, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Lawrence, Newton and Fall River), these 10 urban districts combined would operate in an area smaller than the Mohawk District.

Let me say this a different way, if these 10 urban school districts were consolidated into one, it would serve 200,000 students in a geographic space smaller than the space in which Mohawk today serves its 1,000 students. Never mind economy of scale, rural Mohawk is the very definition of diseconomy of scale.

I’ll provide an example. In April of 2014, the Heath Bridge within the Mohawk district was closed for repairs and just reopened in January of this year.

Now, in rural Mohawk, roads are not constructed in a manner conducive to minor detours. It’s not as if the bus could just go up to the next block and go around the closed bridge. We don’t have blocks in Mohawk. We don’t even have subdivisions. What we do have is lots of land, trees, mountains and dirt roads.

In order to ensure that our students’ time-on-bus would not exceed 1 hour and 15 minutes, Mohawk was forced to contract an additional bus. The cost of this additional bus amounted to over $200,000 between 2014 and 2019. And yes, I did say 1 hour and 15 minutes.

For some of our students, it is normal to spend 2 and 1/2 hours on a school bus every day. Understanding the moment. That this is a once in a generation opportunity.

The Massachusetts Rural Schools Coalition implores you to support Bill S.2185 and ensure a rurality factor is added to the Massachusetts education funding formula. We are asking for the same level of support that Wisconsin provides its rural schools today – $400 per student. At this funding level, the total cost of S.2185 would be $15 million annually. Relative to the $1-$2 billion currently under consideration, this cost would amount to 1.5 percent or less. Yet, it would be a total game changer for nearly 5 percent of the total state student population. A 1.5 percent investment with a 5 percent dividend.

If our moral appeal for equity in rural Massachusetts does not convince you, I hope that this powerful return on investment will. Our rural children deserve no less.

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