School choice forum provides abundant information, but few were there to hear itMore Info
The vociferous, anti-spending voices of recent town meetings and school renovation information sessions were absent from Wednesday night’s (June 18) sparsely attended forum on school choice, the state-mandated program that allows students from one district to “choice in” to another.
That the three schools in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District have attracted so many students from neighboring districts has become a contentious issue, with advocates maintaining that a diverse and robust school population enriches the curriculum and provides revenue while opponents contend the district towns taxpayers – especially those in Great Barrington – are underwriting education for other districts without getting sufficiently reimbursed.
And who could blame district residents for not wanting to endure another school meeting? The Berkshire evening air was soft and fragrant, and there were, no doubt, lawns to mow and grills to tend.
Still, it was too bad that more district residents didn’t come out, as there were some good brains for the picking, including that of Michael Gilbert, Field Director for the Massachusetts Association for School Committees, a “school choice expert” if there ever was one.
Gilbert spent 20 years on two different school committees, and now serves as an advisor, consultant and workshop presenter. He and Monument Mountain Regional High School Principal Marianne Young facilitated “Let’s Talk About School Choice” in the high school cafeteria.
School choice in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, explained Gilbert, was brought about by legal action in the 1990s over “equity and adequacy of the state to educate kids.” Back when the law was written, the rate of state funds per pupil was $5,000, and was capped there — “tunnel vision” on the part of legislators, he says. As Great Barrington residents are quickly learning, that number has remained though it is now about “half of the average expenditure per pupil,” says Gilbert.
There has been quite a fuss in the Berkshire Hills district – a real concern for taxpayers – over the tax burden created by the district’s acceptance of students from surrounding districts, 290 to be exact. At the capped rate of $5,000 from the state per school choice student, the remainder gets picked up by taxpayers. Yet the district is able to fill what would otherwise be empty seats with those students, and take in much needed revenue to maintain its exemplary programs and excellent staff. The revenue also helps stabilize finances, since 99 students choice out on average, at an annual cost to the district of $600,000, including special education costs.
It is a balancing act, says Gilbert, to stay on the tightrope between school choice revenue and the threat of dependence on it to “sustain something long-term.”
In response to one resident who proposed cutting back by capping the number of students and reducing the size of the buildings, Gilbert replied: “When you start weaning off of choice dollars the budget will go up. You still have to have all the classes and run all the shops. Many costs are fixed.”
But the cost of education – and everything – goes up over the years. “You can’t educate a child for $5,000 today,” said Gilbert, “but you can still add value to the district. Most districts will tell you that we can take some kids into our buildings and still make money with school choice.”
That total revenue number is $1,450,000 in Berkshire Hills. At the rate of $5,000 per choice student, the district pulled in $400,000 from Muddy Brook Elementary School, $375,000 from Monument Middle School, and $675,000 from the high school. Subtracting what was lost by students leaving the district, the net revenue comes to $850,000.
In her Power Point presentation Principal Young explained that the district is not unsympathetic to community members, and is very carefully managing the choice issue.
“We’ve heard your concerns,” said Young “We use our class size to put together responsible budgets while maintaining a vibrant program with half the faculty and certified staff that we had in 1999.”
It is a delicate balancing act, indeed, to maintain a relatively even level of school choice rates, since by law, the district cannot restrict students from leaving, but can decide not to accept students from other districts. The school committee votes whether to allow students to choice in, noted Young.
With so many students wanting to choice into what has become a desirable district, Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon explained all the measures in place to prevent families from working the system. One new control is a lottery for admission to Berkshire Hills schools, even for students currently enrolled whose families have to move out of district, though they will be allowed to finish out their school year.
Jeremy Higa, a parent running for school committee, asked Gilbert if it was realistic to think the choice situation could change.
There doesn’t seem to be “push back” from enough districts to “cause the Legislature to move on this,” said Gilbert, who added that “nothing has happened with education funding, at least in my lifetime, that didn’t involve a lawsuit. It’s easier to change the school choice formula than the state aid formula.”
Yet the impact of school choice, says Young, is that the district “can offer an expansive program, highly focused academic, vocational, art and music.”
Gilbert noted that that most people would “kill to have a comprehensive school” like MMRHS, a “rare” gem with both strong vocational and academic programs.
“Most vocational education is so limited in most district,” he pointed out. “This is a very attractive district, especially as a rural regional district.”
So attractive that more than 40 students are on waiting lists to choice into Berkshire Hill’s schools.
And therein lies the problem: Some taxpayers might feel it is a bit too attractive. But only for the Great Barrington pocketbook, it would seem.
Neel Webber, who has taught at the high school for 20 years, said that the “type of students” he sees choice in to the high school make it a more dynamic place, that they come because the programs are so good.
“Those students help create a wonderful student body. Keep this in mind and know the value of those students coming in,” he advised.
But what about those taxpayers without school-age children or on fixed incomes? Without a large commercial tax base, Great Barrington property taxes have soared in the last 10 years and are forever inching upward, it seems.
As for the way in which school choice contributes to this rising tax burden, Young said the district is conscientiously addressing it as best they can within the confines of the law and the financial needs of the district.
“We are taking it seriously, and have responded to the concerns in incremental ways to insure we are not dependent on school choice revenue to operate the district, nor will we cripple or harm our district by making rash decisions,” she said, wrapping up the meeting.