$1.5M of new ‘rural school aid’ in latest state budget
The Legislature’s $41.88 billion compromise budget approved Wednesday includes a new “rural school aid” account championed by local Sen. Adam Hinds as a way of addressing the financial challenges of rural school districts.
The budget calls for $1.5 million in additional funding for rural school districts, most of which are in western Massachusetts.
The new account provides additional funding for an estimated 62 school districts with enrollment of fewer than 21 students per square mile and per capita income below the state average, with priority given to districts serving fewer than 11 students per square mile.
“We’re incredibly excited,” said Hinds, D-Pittsfield. “It will have a big impact schools throughout the commonwealth, but particularly in Western Mass.”
Hinds, who was particularly assisted in the proposal by another local legislator, Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, sidestepped the question of whether Gov. Charlie Baker would support the new rural school budget item, saying only, “The good news is that the findings of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in his administration really put in black and white how stark the fiscal situation of rural schools is, and it was on that basis that we moved forward with the sparsity aid.”
Including the new rural school funding account in the budget grew out of DESE’s January report conclusion that Massachusetts’s rural schools spend 50 percent more on school transportation and more per pupil for teachers and paraprofessionals because of declining enrollments.
Hinds had proposed but then withdrew an amendment to an overall school-aid revision formula in May, opting instead to have the rural aid provision included instead in the annual budget. The new policy grew out of reforms advocated by Mohawk Trail Regional School District Superintendent Michael Buoniconti.
Buoniconti reacted to the news by email: “WOW!! This is such wonderful wonderful news for rural public schools across the commonwealth! Establishing rural school aid within the FY19 Massachusetts budget marks the beginning of addressing the inequity of state funding of rural public education within the state. I am extraordinarily grateful to Senator Adam Hinds for his leadership helping us realize this critical milestone. Again, I say WOW!!”
“Rural schools face significant and unique fiscal challenges due to population decline, density and ability to pay,” Hinds said when he first presented his rural aid proposal to the state Senate in May. “This proposal is a direct response to local and regional officials throughout my district who confront those difficulties. If we do not do something to help these school districts financially, Massachusetts is at risk of providing unequal education opportunities for children who live in rural areas. That cannot be allowed to happen.”
Baker will have 10 days to sign the new budget, which got a final legislative vote late Wednesday afternoon.
“When it comes to the whole package of education,” said Hinds, ” there are multiple pots of money that will have tremendous impact on our schools.”
Among them are 80 percent funding for regional school transportation reimbursements, fully funding for the special education “circuit breaker” account, provisions of the Chapter 70 Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations for health-care spending and other aspects of the funding formula and a $5 million increase for early education teachers.
The budget also includes nearly $142 million for substance abuse treatment, $88 million for regional transit authorities and $200,000 for the Franklin County Opioid Task Force, Hinds said, as well as $10.8 million for Greenfield Community College.
Massachusetts remains the only state in the country without a full budget in place for the budget year that began July 1.
House and Senate budgets, each totaling about $41.5 billion, differed on individual line items.
A $5 billion interim budget passed in late June has kept the government running until a new spending takes effect.
On the Web: www.malegislature.gov/Budget/ConferenceCommittee