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Let the cash flow: Rural school aid envisioned by Hinds becomes a reality

The funding is intended to help school districts with low population densities and lower-than-average incomes address fiscal challenges and take steps to improve efficiency.

Dalton —Smiles will fill any venue when officials from afar arrive bearing gifts. And that’s precisely what happened earlier today when Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley came to the Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton to announce the first recipients of rural school aid from the state.

DESE Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley said, “This funding is an additional source of support for rural schools and the students who they serve.” To his right are CBRSD Superintendent Laurie Casna and Michael Buoniconti, superintendent of Mohawk Trail Regional School District. Photo; Terry Cowgill

A total of $1.5 million was distributed to 33 school districts, most of them in western and central Massachusetts and on Cape Cod. The Central Berkshire Regional School District, which serves Becket, Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru, Washington, Windsor and the Hampshire County town of Cummington, led the pack with almost a quarter of a million dollars, with dozens of others receiving considerably less. The Berkshire Hills Regional School District received a little more than $21,000, for example.

In addition to Riley, elected officials from western Massachusetts were present, including Sen. Adam Hinds, Rep. Stephen Kulik and Rep. Paul Mark. And there was Central Berkshire Superintendent Laurie Casna and Michael Buoniconti, superintendent of Mohawk Trail Regional School District, from which Hinds graduated.

See video below of the news conference with state Sen. Adam Hinds and others in the gymnasium at Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton:

                

Despite the presence of the commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), officials credited Hinds with making much of the money available through his efforts in the state legislature. 

Hinds, a Democrat who lives in Pittsfield, represents the geographically largest senate district in the state. The sparsely populated district includes parts of four counties and is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Since his election in 2016, Hinds set out to create a new grant program for the state’s most rural school districts during the 2017-18 legislative session. The funding is intended to help school districts with low population densities and lower-than-average incomes address fiscal challenges and take steps to improve efficiency. Smaller school districts tend to have a higher cost-per-pupil because they lack the economies of scale that larger districts enjoy.

Riley said DESE will work with these districts over the coming months to formulate plans to increase regional collaboration, consolidation or other efficiencies. Indeed, many of those efforts are already underway with the formation of the Berkshire County Educational Task Force and the Southern Berkshire Education Futures panel. The former recommended the creation of a single countywide school district last summer, while the latter is exploring possible consolidation and sharing of services between Berkshire Hills, Southern Berkshire, Lee and Lenox. 

Sen. Adam Hinds explains how the rural aid program came to be. At right are CBRSD Superintendent Laurie Casna, DESE Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley and Michael Buoniconti, superintendent of Mohawk Trail Regional School District. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In his remarks, Hinds emphasized the importance of education but quickly added, “And yet we remain at risk of providing an unequal educational opportunity throughout the commonwealth based on key factors like your zip code and if you’re in a rural area or not.” 

Hinds worked largely behind the scenes last year to build the case for establishing Rural School Aid by securing a reporting mandate in the FY18 state budget. DESE was then directed to study and make recommendations on the fiscal challenges faced by rural school districts statewide.  

Back in March, Hinds also held a public forum at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Shelburne Falls to review the findings of the DESE report with state education officials.

Hinds, who co-chairs the legislative Rural Caucus with Kulik and two other senators, said the data in the report “was compelling” — enough so that it led to the successful effort to establish and fund Rural School Aid with $1.5 million in this year’s state budget.  

Click here to read the DESE report, entitled “Fiscal Conditions in Rural School Districts.” Smaller districts have often complained about the failure of the state to live up to its promise to fully fund transportation costs for regional school districts. And more recently, a failed effort was made in the legislature to reform the state’s foundation budget — a topic of considerable concern in rural districts.

Rep. Stephen Kulik said the modest funds “are just the beginning.” Watch him are, from left, Rep. Paul Mark, Sen Adam Hinds, CBRSD Superintendent Laurie Casna and Michael Buoniconti, superintendent of Mohawk Trail Regional School District. photo: Terry Cowgill

“Providing proper levels of funding for our schools is one of the biggest challenges facing state and local governments,” said Kulik, a Worthington Democrat who is not running for re-election this year. “Small rural schools face especially unique problems, and this targeted funding and support will provide new opportunities to strengthen educational opportunity in many of our rural school districts.” Kulik added that he is convinced that these modest funds are just the beginning.

In a brief interview, Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon said the $21,275 his district received will be used for an innovative collaborative care program envisioned by former Muddy Brook Elementary School Principal Mary Berle. Click here to read an Edge story from earlier this year on the program. 

“It’s pretty neat,” Dillon said. “It gives us some needed funding in the short term while we raise money for the long term.” The Rotary Club of Great Barrington has chipped in $5,000 and the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge donated $1,000. 

See the complete list below of the other rural districts in the state that received funding:

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