INTRO TEXT at first, the news looked good for Georgetown Middle High School, the sole secondary school in a northern Essex County town of 7,377 residents, with students in grades six through 12. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Public Secondary Schools reviews the accreditation of its roughly 630 dues-paying members every 10 years, and last year was Georgetown’s turn. After a school visit in March, NEASC evaluators crowed with praise for student work samples, staff, and administrators.

Then came the bad news. The nonprofit association reaccredited GMHS, but with a warning: Georgetown had failed to meet its “community resources for learning” standard, which assesses, in part, whether facilities and funding are sufficient. The people of Georgetown are in a state of shock, says Philip Trapani, a member of Georgetown Concerned Residents.

Georgetown is not alone. In 2006, 51 Massachusetts schools were on warning—with 13 cited for “community resource” issues—and 10 were on probation, the most in New England. Facilities and finances, which NEASC sees as directly affecting student learning, are the most common problems leading to warnings or probation.

Georgetown was cited for low spending.

In Georgetown’s case, part of the problem is a growing student population, translating into bigger class sizes and too few desks and computers. GMHS houses 820 students today, up from 710 in 2001-02; the 12th grade has 90 students, the sixth grade 140. GMHS principal Peter Lucia admits that the school’s budget hasn’t kept pace with enrollment. But NEASC also faulted the town for the lack of an “adequate and dependable” revenue stream for its schools. Evaluators pointed to Georgetown’s median family income—$79,649 in 2003—as well above the state average. Yet in 2005 the town’s expenditures-per-pupil were the lowest of any district in the state, at $6,273, according to Department of Education figures. In the past five years, the town considered three Proposition 21/2 overrides that would have bolstered school funding, but voted them all down.

Communities drag their feet on finances, argues Pamela Gray-Bennett, director of NEASC’s secondary schools commission, who sees the accreditation agency’s role as forcing the issue. “Sometimes people don’t want to spend money on a car until the old car really breaks down,” she says.

But given the Bay State’s elaborate school funding system, put in place by the Education Reform Act of 1993, it is hard to see how a community could so badly shortchange its schools even if it wanted to. The state sets a minimum spending level for each community, or “foundation budget,” that is thought to be enough to provide an adequate education for all students. The state also sets a minimum level for local funding, based on each community’s income and property wealth, though many localities provide more. Then the state makes up any difference between required local contribution and foundation budget through Chapter 70 aid.

As far as the state is concerned, Georgetown is holding up its end of the bargain, says Roger Hatch, administrator of school finance programs for the state Department of Education. In fiscal 2006, the town exceeded its nearly $9.9 million foundation budget by 9 percent; the local contribution was almost $6.5 million.

But if NEASC claims Georgetown isn’t spending enough, what does that say about foundation budget? Nothing at all, says Hatch, who argues that foundation budget represents some consensus on adequate spending. As for Georgetown’s bottom dwelling in per-pupil expenditures, that doesn’t mean much about the quality of education there, as long as the district meets or exceeds foundation budget, he says. Nor does Hatch take the rejection of overrides as a sign of community neglect. He notes that overrides simply represent the desires of residents who are willing to pay more for schools, but they have to convince a majority of voters to go along with them.

To Hatch, the accreditation agency’s stance on funding hearkens back to the days when local school boards could dictate budgets to municipal officials. “It almost sounds as if [NEASC] wants to return to the point where school committees can decide, ‘Whatever we want to spend, that’s what we’re going to spend,’” he says.

If NEASC is all wet, why worry about getting its seal of approval? Accreditation is a valuable process, says Mike Gilbert, a Massachusetts Association of School Committees field director, but he admits that the proliferation of accountability systems makes for conflicts between what state, federal, and professional organizations are asking for.

The NEASC credential is also considered important for college admissions. “Loss of accreditation would be a very serious blow to the student caught in the middle,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Gilbert, however, is not so sure. “Do colleges look at accreditation? Yes. Will it cause them to say, ‘I’m not going to take your child.’ I don’t think so.”

In Georgetown, the outside warning does provide validation for those who have been warning about deteriorating school quality, “because schools say it all the time, and, after a while, it falls on deaf ears,” says Margaret Messelaar, a parent and former school committee member. Georgetown Middle High School has until July to come up with a plan and until October 2008 to outline specific actions to address the problems, or risk further sanctions from the accrediting agency.

“One thing about the community is that in the end when they need to rally, they do. I don’t see the majority of the population supporting a course of action that leads to [GMHS] not being accredited,” says school committee chairman George Moker.