Monday, May 21, 2007

Rural Schools

Two articles today. One from The Republican, titled "Rural Schools Fighting Trend', can be found with a google search on that title. I haven't linked to the article because it's in Masslive's paid archives now.

Much of the article focuses on the Mohawk Regional, where a budget recommendation calls for closing three out of four elementary schools in an eight-town, 250 square mile district.

There is a big hitch to the consolidation plan. Closure of the three schools would only be viable if the state Legislature agrees to let towns that receive 75 percent reimbursement on bonds used to pay for school improvements off the hook over a provision that requires towns to pay the full payments if the schools are closed.

Buoniconti, a former technology teacher who took over the district in June 2005, is lobbying legislators to make that happen.

Buoniconti calls the financial situation at Mohawk and other districts like it "a death spiral."

The districts are rural, many residents have low incomes, and the population is declining. The enrollment in the Mohawk District has declined 22 percent in the last five years, mirroring population loss in that area.

"Mohawk has somehow managed to stay right under the edge, being able to sustain some pretty good educational performance while doing it on a shoestring. That can't go on forever," he said.


It becomes an education problem when you close a school and it causes a student to be on the bus for more than an hour. We're looking at an average 1½-hour bus ride for the average student from the most remote communities (Plainfield and Heath)," Buoniconti said.

Key point: there is a limit to consolidation. I think two towns is about the limit for a viable and sustaining elementary school, depending on local factors; lower than that, and the towns will be fighting a downward spiral simply to maintain their population and economic base.

The state's current policies on school choice and the foundation budget are not working well for rural areas. If nothing else, the state should be considering its own stranded costs for capital assets - the Sanderson Academy is a brand new school building - as well as the full extent of current and projected regional transportation costs. Are children who spend an average of an hour and a half a day on a bus getting an equal education? The state's current opinion seems to be that these areas simply are not self-sustaining and it isn't the state's problem, but perhaps it is time to figure out how to apply very small scale local schooling in an economical way; or until that can be achieved, at least apply a different scale factor on administrative costs and overhead in the foundation budget that is inversely proportional to feasible transportation times & costs.

The choice formula, also, isn't working for these declining population rural districts. Geography doesn't make these places attractive for choice schools - charter schools are located where the geography lends itself to inflow, and public choice goes the same direction. Not every place with favorable geography is a school choice nexus, but there are very few choice schools located in unfavorable places. Some of the kids living in the Mohawk district can attend choice schools that are more favorably located, but the cost to the kids left behind, and the local taxpayers and other local stakeholders, for following the state model exceeds the benefits to those opting out.

The state's mandate is to offer an equal education for all, even those in towns with unfavorable geography combined with unfavorable demographics.


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