In The People's Blog, Updates from Jo

On Tuesday, April 9, I testified to the Joint Committee on Education about rural school funding. My testimony is below.

Senator Jo Comerford Testimony Supporting S.248/H.409 and S.2185

I support these two connected bills, which should be seen as complementary and mutually reinforcing.

The bills are S. 248 and H. 409 – An Act evaluating providing additional educational assistance to school districts with low or declining enrollment, introduced by myself along with my colleague, Rep. Natalie Blais.

And my neighbor Senator Hinds’ bill: S. 2185, An Act ensuring fair funding for rural schools. These bills work together to address devastating issues facing schools in our respective
districts and across the state.

This Committee has an enormous and complex job to tackle this session. Revising our antiquated school funding formula will take tremendous efforts. The formula constructed in the 1990s must be updated to reflect the realities of today.

One issue raised by both of these bills is the fact that schools in different parts of the state experience different costs. For example, if students happen to be in a rural district where busses must travel hundreds of miles each morning, that must be recognized. And if students happen to be in school districts where enrollment is declining, holding their Chapter 70 allocation flat as their fixed costs increase, that must be recognized as well.

Senator Hinds’ S. 2185 would instruct DESE to recognize the additional costs faced by rural schools. The Department of Education highlighted these costs in its Fiscal Conditions of Rural School Districts report in 2018:

Over the last 10 years, total spending in rural districts did not grow as quickly as it did in the rest of the state, but declining enrollment and increasing health insurance spending are driving up average per pupil costs. Between fiscal years 2008 and 2016, total in-district spending in rural districts grew by 14.8 percent versus 21.7 percent in all other districts. Over the same period, however, per pupil spending in rural districts increased at a faster rate, 31.0 percent to 24.9 percent.

Average costs in rural districts grew faster in most cost categories, with the exception of other teaching services and instructional materials, see Figures 4, 5, and 6. Health insurance is one area that stands out: Between 2008 and 2016 per pupil spending on health insurance grew by 50.7 percent in rural districts compared to 25.5 percent in the rest of the state. Growth in health insurance spending is impacting districts across the Commonwealth, but appears to be impacting rural school districts more heavily. Factoring in growth across all spending categories, rural districts now spend $1,845 more per in-district pupil than all other districts, up from $856 more in fiscal year 2008.

Declining enrollment and rising costs are at the heart of the challenges facing rural school districts. Given their size, it is difficult for these districts to achieve economies of scale.

The Commonwealth faces a choice whether to direct additional funding to rural districts, seek more efficiency in how they deliver services, or some combination of the two.

Unfortunately the state previously sought more efficiency in how these schools deliver services by encouraging small towns to regionalize, and promised to fully reimburse the costs of regional school transportation for those schools that did. The state never lived up to this promise, and the unfunded cost of regional school transportation has now become one of the biggest expenditures for these small towns. Gill-Montague lost $127,288 to regional school transportation last year, Amherst Pelham $284,232, Mohawk $290,727, and the Pioneer Valley School District $213,698.

This Department’s report demonstrated why rural sparsity aid was merited in the FY19 budget, and now these findings should be codified in statute. By passing Senator Hinds’ S. 248 into law, the state will formally recognize what we already know- rural schools experience higher costs.

The 2018 DESE report also touched on the issues faced by schools with declining enrollments, which can also be understood by looking at the situation of Gill Montague Regional School District. In FY06, Gill Montague’s foundation enrollment was 1,239 students, but that number declined to 1,078 students in FY18. The district’s state aid has been held harmless, but it also has barely grown. The chart below displays Gill Montague Regional School districts average increase in revenues from FY11 to FY17:

State Aid $38,686
Local Assessments 244,224
School-Choice In 24,130
State and Federal Grants -111,776
Other Revenues -11,947
Total 183,317

Alarmingly, during that same period the school districts expenditures increased at a much faster rate. Below are selected Gill-Montague average expenditure increases from FY11 to FY17:

Charter School Tuitions (net reimbursement) $80,413
School Choice-Out 57,726
Employee Benefits 55,833
Special Education Out-of-District 15,555
Teacher Salaries 15,803
Instructional Materials/Technology 26,058
All Other Areas 24,183
Total 275,570

On an average year, the district’s expenditure increases exceeds the foundation budget increase by 184%. The district has taken grave measures to cut costs over this same period, including cutting 10 teaching positions, 7 support staff positions, 4 administrator/coordinator positions – about 10% of the district’s total staff.

Leverett is another school with declining enrollment that is experiencing the cost trends. Leverett has five students who attend a charter school, which will take in FY20 an estimated $111,363 from their Chapter 70 aid- leaving $183,028 for the remaining 120 students. Leverett and Gill Montague are not alone, in fact their enrollment declines do not even crack the top nine:

District FY08 FY17 % Change
Petersham 119 63 -47.10%
Richmond 213 119 -44.10%
Clarksburg 272 175 -35.70%
Gateway 1,356 893 -34.10%
Savoy 100 66 -34.00%
Lanesborough 278 188 -32.40%
Central Berkshire 2,182 1,612 -26.10%
Quabbin 2,917 2,200 -24.60%
Nauset 1,611 1,235 -23.30%

Small school districts like these can recognize no appreciable cost savings with declining enrollments of 20 students per year spread across 13 grade levels. At periodic intervals a teacher can be cut without exploding class size but beyond that, in schools where there are already only one of everything; nurse, custodian, principal, guidance counselor, copy machine, and so on, no cost reductions can match the $5,000 that leaves with a choice student or the $16,000 that follows a charter school student.

Furthermore, smaller schools buy in smaller quantities, denying them the cost benefits of bulk purchasing. The reality is that there are many areas where small schools experience higher costs than larger ones- and with flat or declining enrollments their Chapter 70 aid does not increase to compensate.

The bill that Rep. Blais and I introduced asks DESE to study the issue of funding needs for schools with low and declining enrollment. These schools have unique issues that are not addressed by a per-pupil funding formula. The establishment of rural sparsity aid was a crucial first step, but the rural sparsity aid formula—even in its most robust form, which I strongly support—does not cover all of the schools that are experiencing low or declining enrollments.That is why I filed S.248—so that we can understand the true costs being faced by schools in this situation.

All of our children must be provided with the resources needed for an outstanding education.

The goal of both of these bills is fairness and equity. Together, these bill reinforce each other, by making sure that our funding formula takes into account the needs of all of our students.

Thank you for your consideration.

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Text reading "Dear Jo" over a background of a stack of lettersJo crouches in the middle of a large group at the Center for New Americans