WHEN SCHOOL OFFICIALS in the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District think about what language classes to offer, the discussion is not around what students are interested in or what would be most beneficial.
“It’s more about what teacher with what qualification can we get,” said Todd Stewart, the district’s superintendent.
When it comes to teacher recruitment, Stewart said, the deck feels stacked against the small district in north-central Massachusetts, 30 miles north of Worcester. With a scarcity of rental property for would-be teachers and a modest tax base that limits the salaries that it can offer, the district struggles to draw teachers, particularly with specialized skills.
Stewart said that’s especially true for potential candidates in the Boston area. “If you’re looking at two jobs, you can hop on the T a couple of stops and work in Arlington, or drive one hour [and] twenty minutes west, and I’m not going to pay you what they’re paying there,” Stewart said.
While much state attention has recently been paid to struggling urban school districts, particularly Boston, rural districts face their own unique challenges, from population declines to transportation struggles. A new report by a commission formed to examine rural school districts recommends that the state provide an infusion of new funding into rural districts, among other policy changes.
Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat who co-chaired the Commission on the Fiscal Health of Rural School Districts, said he will use the report’s recommendations to try to boost funding for rural school districts in some of the large spending bills moving through the Legislature before the session ends July 31. “Some [recommendations] need immediate attention…others may take a little more time,” Hinds told commission members at their final public meeting, held Tuesday via videoconference. “I’ll be trying to take advantage of the moment where we have a lot of cash on hand to move those first recommendations far north of where they currently are.”
The commission was established by the Student Opportunity Act in 2019, and its recommendations will provide an advocacy framework for those concerned about rural schools. The recommendations passed by voice vote with no commission member voting against them and three abstentions from three executive branch appointees, who are generally barred by their jobs from taking a stance on legislative reports.
A root cause of many of the challenges facing rural districts is declining enrollment due to population shifts. Over the last 20 years, the state population increased by 10 percent but declined in rural Berkshire and Franklin counties. Meanwhile, the rural population is aging, leaving fewer school-age children. As a result, between 2010 and 2019, school enrollment declined by 3.8 percent statewide, but by 15 to 20 percent in rural Barnstable, Berkshire, and Franklin counties.
When districts have fewer students, they get less state money, but they still have many of the same fixed costs for buildings and staff. In some cases, like transportation, they have higher costs than urban districts because students are geographically spread out. A 2018 report found that rural districts were spending around $2,000 more per student than non-rural districts. Compounding the problem, many of these areas have low property values and low wages, so there is limited ability to raise local taxes to fund the schools.
Ashburnham Westminster is better situated than many rural districts – it is larger and less isolated than many Western Massachusetts communities. But its example illustrates the challenge of even a relatively fortunate rural community.
Ellen Holmes, a commission member who has served for 25 years on the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School Committee, said when she joined the school committee in 1998, there were around 2,500 students; now there are 2,200 to 2,300 students. Families have moved away or sent children to private or parochial schools. With few big companies, limited jobs in the region, and no easy access to major highways, it is hard to attract more companies and more families.
Stewart, the district superintendent, said any population decline costs schools money, particularly in a smaller district with limited ability to shift class sizes. “If we have three students leave third grade, [only] a nominal part of our costs goes away,” he said. “I’m not eliminating a teaching position, I still need to run lights in the classroom, buses.”
Stewart said Ashburnham Westminster has struggled with questions like whether to run an advanced placement class for only six kids, or whether to combine two advanced Spanish classes, even if the children are on different levels, because there is only one teacher.
Holmes recalled conversations from several years ago about whether two districts could offer Advanced Placement chemistry together, since neither had enough interest for a full class. But she said having students travel raised scheduling and transportation problems. When the school committee considered using video technology, they were stymied by a lack of reliable internet – a problem more prevalent in rural regions than cities.
The report says that as schools bleed money, they cut things like art classes, enrichment programs, or extracurricular activities. Such programming cuts lead to more students leaving to go to charter, vocational, or other district schools under an inter-district school choice program, which compounds the enrollment problem. Closing schools is not always an option, because that would leave students traveling far distances to go elsewhere.
The report flags special education as another challenging area, since many rural districts have trouble attracting special education staff, and districts are then responsible for transporting special needs students to far-away out-of-district placements.
At its meeting, the commission discussed whether to recommend amending state regulations to let students be bussed to special education placements that are more than an hour away. Current regulations prohibit that – although commission members said practically, some special needs children are on buses for longer than that. Holmes said as a parent, she would not want to deny her children access to special education services in Natick or Framingham – which with traffic are over and hour away – when there are no comparable services locally.
Officials say many challenges facing rural schools stem not only from a lack of money, but also from infrastructure issues. For example, Holmes said, her school committee has had a perennial debate over whether to run a late bus to accommodate children who stay late for sports or extracurricular activities. “For years it was just the cost of having those buses and being able to finance it. Now it’s being able to find a bus company that will do it,” Holmes said. The current arrangement has the late bus dropping students off at a central location, rather than at a bus stop near their home.
“It’s not a level playing field compared to a more affluent suburban community or urban community that has other transportation resources you can access,” Holmes said.
Massachusetts is far from the only state to have confronted these issues. According to the report, there are 37 states that provide extra funding to rural or low-enrollment districts. Massachusetts instituted rural school aid several years ago, which provided rural districts with $4 million in fiscal 2022, around $59,700 per district.
Commission co-chair Rep. Natalie Blais, a Sunderland Democrat, said that is “not enough for schools to really make a difference.”
The 47-page report contains myriad recommendations, and many boil down to money. It recommends increasing rural school aid dramatically, to $60 million a year, while reviewing the aid formula. It recommends creating a new fund to reimburse districts for rural school transportation. Another allocation would be earmarked to help communities with large, long-term downward enrollment trends.
During the meeting, several commission members noted the unique transportation challenges in rural districts. Blais cited a student she spoke with who has a 45-minute bus ride and who said he could not participate in student government or honor club. “If he wanted to participate, he would have to take the late bus, then be dropped in the middle of Chesterfield and walk a mile down a road with no sidewalks to get back to his house,” Blais said. The report suggests policy changes to help districts ensure competition among transportation vendors and provide transportation to students living where the roads are dangerous to walk.
The report also discussed the need to consolidate schools and share services regionally, with financial aid to incentivize mergers. It suggests increasing aid to districts that serve high percentages of special education students and to districts where special education students travel long distances for services.
The report also recommends capping how many students can leave through school choice programs. While some districts rely on school choice students to fill seats, others are seeing already-low enrollment decimated by the program, with a negative financial impact. The report identified 25 low-enrollment districts, including Worthington and North Brookfield, where between 10 percent and 28 percent of students are leaving through school choice.