Concerned for rural schools, Berkshires lawmakers prep for education funding debate in state budget

Photo by Alexius Horatius/Wikimedia Commons

By Sophie Moritz
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON — A $485 million increase in funding for K-12 public schools in Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposal is a step in the right direction, Berkshire County lawmakers say, but they are concerned that the unique needs of rural districts aren’t being addressed.

The boost in state aid comes from the implementation of a 2019 law, known as the Student Opportunity Act, which is considered to be the first significant education reform that the state has made since 1992.

“The idea was to understand and to acknowledge that to educate a person living in poverty, a person learning English as a second language, a person in special education is more expensive than educating a person without,” said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield.

While Berkshire County lawmakers have celebrated the funding increase, state aid continues to fall short for many rural districts, where residents often pay disproportionately more in property taxes to fund schools.

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said that 136 of 318 districts across the state will receive the minimum of $30-per-student increase from the Student Opportunity Act.

“That means those 136 districts would receive a combined increase of $9.3 million, and the rest would get $475 million,” Hinds said.

While the Student Opportunity Act originally was scheduled for full implementation in fiscal 2026, the coronavirus pandemic led the state to push the funding schedule back a year. The delay resulted in the use of October 2021 enrollment numbers, which reflected significant pandemic-related decreases, especially in kindergarten and first grade students.

“The question I have is: Are they using the right enrollment numbers?” Farley-Bouvier asked, acknowledging that it is hard to keep track of every student’s educational needs after the pandemic.

Even with adjustments, the state’s K-12 aid formula, known as Chapter 70, remains greatly dependent on enrollment, posing challenges for schools with low or declining enrollment. Some rural schools face increasing costs, such as for transportation, even as enrollment drops.

“In some of the smaller towns, the enrollment numbers go down,” said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru. “So, then you have this problem — because of the formula, they do not get much money.”

An additional line item for rural schools devotes some additional money to those districts, although lawmakers want to increase that number.Hinds and state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, co-chair a rural school commission, which was created by the Student Opportunity Act to address the deviation between rural schools funding and other schools. 

“My concern is that you have other students in surrounding towns who will not receive the resources they need, according to this formula,” Hinds said. “It is resulting in the same concerns that we have been trying to address through rural school aid and other avenues. The schools with lower declining enrollment end up in a spiral downwards when you make a choice like this.”

Yet, lawmakers point to multiple funding sources, including surplus tax revenue and an influx of federal aid, as opportunities to invest in rural districts without worrying about hurting other priorities.

“We are at a moment when we don’t have to choose one priority at the expense of another,” Hinds said. “We can really make the necessary investments across the board.”

Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon said his district is focused on investing in student and staff health and wellness, supporting their increasing number of English language learners, and identifying and expanding career, vocational and technical opportunities.

Dillon acknowledged that while enrollment across Berkshire County has decreased, “our particular district, Berkshire Hills, saw a slight increase. I think we have lost some students due to the pandemic, but as things get safer, those kids will come back.”

The district uses grant money to supplement the regular yearly budget, Dillon added.

Another top priority, he said, is to help students reconnect with teachers and peers.

“In a really interesting way, things like athletics at the high school level might be as important as providing more psychological services,” he said. “We really want young people to reestablish deep connections with classmates and with grown-ups so they can demonstrate engagement and, ultimately, success,” Dillon said.

This article originally appeared in The Berkshire Eagle.

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