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State auditor cites Berkshire Hills in sweeping study of regional school districts

"While our state’s educational system is highly regarded throughout the country, our analysis found that the processes governing school regionalization and its funding are antiquated, and have not kept pace with the modern challenges facing communities." -- State Auditor Suzanne Bump

The office of State Auditor Suzanne Bump today (October 18) released a detailed study with broad implications for regional school districts throughout the state, including several in the Berkshires.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump

Entitled Supporting Student and Community Success: Updating the Structure and Finance of Massachusetts Regional School Districts, the 68-page report addresses several issues that have vexed Berkshire County’s regional school districts (RSDs) for years. Click here for an executive summary.

Among the key findings and recommendations:

  • Developing deeper incentives to encourage communities to regionalize, noting that the current incentives do not provide enough enticement for schools to give up some measure of local control.
  • Fully funding its commitment to reimburse 100 percent of regional transportation expenses, offer stipends to encourage efficiencies to reduce transportation costs, and allow the use of regional transportation authorities to provide RSD transportation.
  • Offering planning grants to explore the combination of existing RSDs into larger groupings.
  • Ensuring greater transparency from the Massachusetts School Building Authority on its decision-making process for districts that close school facilities.

The report also urges regional districts to conduct periodic reviews of regional agreements between a district’s member towns. In addition, Bump calls on the state Legislature to streamline the budget adoption process for RSDs and “to examine and revise inconsistent funding formulas for children whose families choose educational options outside of their home community.”

And in what seems like deja vu for those who have been following the goings-on in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, Bump urges the Legislature to “empower” the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) “to work with a willing district to develop a pilot program that would result in a single tax rate across all member towns in and RSD.”

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon.

“Whether they live in Boston, Bourne or the Berkshires, Bay Staters recognize that high quality educational opportunities play a critical role in ensuring the vibrancy and financial viability of local communities,” Bump said in a news release announcing the study.

“While our state’s educational system is highly regarded throughout the country, our analysis found that the processes governing school regionalization and its funding are antiquated, and have not kept pace with the modern challenges facing communities.”

The study highlights demographic changes, “long standing structural challenges, and funding shortfalls as key factors that de-incentivize communities from moving forward with new or enhanced school regionalization.”

For example, over the last 10 years, regional district enrollment declined by 10.5 percent, while statewide public school enrollment fell by just 1.62 percent, even as fixed costs continue to rise and state funding has proved “inadequate for many of these districts,” Bump said.

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon was quoted in the news release put out by Bump’s office. Berkshire Hills includes Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.

“I appreciate the depth and breadth of the auditor’s report,” Dillon said. “We all want to ensure that every student has access to high quality education, is engaged, and is making progress. Regional schools are facing real challenges — shifts in enrollment, unreimbursed costs including transportation, and a range of unfunded or partially funded mandates.”

In an interview, Dillon said Bump’s report addresses several issues that have affected his district since he was hired in 2009 and beyond: chronically underfunded transportation aid from the state; flat school choice tuitions paid by sending districts; lack of incentives for further consolidation.

In addition, the study indirectly addresses a proposal by Great Barrington resident resident Chip Elitzer to adopt a single tax rate to fund the district’s operations rather than assessing member towns based mostly on the number of students they send to the district.

Chip Elitzer, speaking at Great Barrington Town Meeting. Photo: David Scribner

Elitzer told The Edge he is pleased with the report but “it’s a long way from being legislation,” in part because Bump “has no legislative power.” He thinks the state Legislature needs to set up a commission or task force to study the proposals and make recommendations.

“This report is invaluable in terms of stirring up some awareness and perhaps putting more impetus behind the proposals,” Elitzer said.

“It highlighted Berkshire Hills as one of the three districts,” Dillon said of Bump’s report. “It’s giving voice to some things we’ve been saying for a long time. It’s one thing for me or someone else to say it, but it’s quite another for the state to say it.”

The other two regional districts highlighted in the report are Groton-Dunstable and the Wachusett Regional School District, the largest regional district in the state.

Dillon said the report highlights “parallel conversations that are going on.” One is “gaps in general funding” and transportation funding and the other is the “structural inequities” that nag regional school districts.

Dillon said total underfunding from the state, which had promised to fully fund the transportation cost of regional school districts, is in the range of $300,000 to $700,000 per year. And it seems that every year, the School Committee is compelled to cut teaching positions in order to keep tax increases down.

“That could cover the cost of five to eight teachers,” Dillon said of the restored aid. “Think about all those budget conversations we had and we were searching for nickels and dimes.”

Dillon said the report should become fodder for dialogue for the next several months or more.

“I’m excited about it because even if people just read the executive summary, they’re prepped for a good conversation,” he said.

Stephen Hemmen is assistant director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools, which represents most of the state’s 58 academic regional school districts that enroll approximately 107,000 students in more than 170 communities. The report, he says, “really brings attention to the issues relating to regional schools.”

“The funding issues we all know about,” Hemmen said. “But it also addresses declining enrollments. The state needs to provide incentives for schools to consolidate and share personnel.”

The state also has an incentive to see regional school districts operate more efficiently because aid to local school districts makes up a huge part of the state budget, Hemmen explained.

“The Legislature needs to look at this as a positive,” said Hemmen, who also added that there will be political obstacles to further regionalization because larger districts mean individual towns will have less clout.

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli

In an interview, state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) said he was not surprised by anything he read in Bump’s report because “it’s everything we’ve been talking about for the last 20 years.” Indeed, Pignatelli seemed to think Bump’s report raises more questions than it answers.

“We have a constitutional officer who recognizes the problem and what are we in the Legislature going to do about it?” Pignatelli asked. “It now comes down how do we do it. We need more money.”

Indeed, Bump’s office sent out a statement today announcing that two central Massachusetts lawmakers, Sen. Anne M. Gobi (D-Spencer) and Rep. Kimberly N. Ferguson (R-Holden), have indicated their intention to work to implement the report’s recommendations.

Pignatelli pointed a finger at DESE, the state agency in charge of elementary and secondary education. He said 10 years ago a DESE undersecretary acknowledged at a public meeting in Sheffield that the state had failed to adequately fund regional schools since the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.

Pignatelli said representatives from the Legislature plan to meet next week with DESE officials and for him, “it will come down to funding” — especially transportation funds, for which the state has only been meeting about 70 percent of its obligations.

“I’ve advocated for a state bid for regional school transportation,” Pignatelli said. “That way, the state will know what 100 percent is.”


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