‘Overburdening an already depleted field’: Bill aims to alleviate school staffing shortages

Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

Isabel Tehan
Boston University Statehouse Program

A nurse employed by one school district who provides services during the academic year is currently not allowed to enter a contract with an educational collaborative to work with the exact same students during the summer. A bill to change that has won initial approval in the Massachusetts House. 

The measure has the potential to ease staffing issues in public schools which were exacerbated by the pandemic, according to its supporters. Collaboratives are paid for by the same dollars that fund public schools, but they aim to stretch each dollar further by utilizing staff across districts. 

Massachusetts has 25 educational collaboratives throughout the state, some of which have been operating for the better part of four decades. They allow resources to be shared across districts, with the goal of minimizing the burden on taxpayers and addressing staffing issues while implementing programming across districts.

“The core mission of educational collaboratives is to expand district capacity by providing programs for students with some of the highest needs across the state,” said Joanne Haley-Sullivan, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Organization of Educational Collaboratives. 

Current ethics law that prohibit employees from working in two school districts at the same time also apply to working at a collaborative, even if the work would not interrupt district obligations, said Haley-Sullivan.

Advocates in the Legislature say its passage will address an urgent need to respond to staffing challenges. Rep. Christopher Markey, D-New Bedford, is a sponsor of the bill, and says it will allow schools and districts to support students at this critical and difficult time in schools, and beyond.

 “There is a huge need for such personnel even before COVID-19,” he told the Beacon Hill Roll Call, naming school nurses, counselors, and therapists as the most in-demand groups.

The pandemic accelerated existing school staffing issues, with teachers and staff experiencing high levels of burnout.

Debate around the role of education collaboratives is not new. Prior to the 2013 legislative session, a commission of a dozen public officials and education leaders was formed to work on improving their efficiency and transparency.

The commission found that while some organizations were working effectively, others needed to get up to speed. The past 10 years have been spent responding to those recommendations, and the bill would allow a leap forward that has been in the works for the better part of a decade.

Opposition comes from concern over the loss of local control, though educational programming remains the responsibility of each district.

Potential taxpayer benefits and budget increases have been demonstrated in several studies in Massachusetts and other states. A 20-year study found the Greater Lawrence Educational Collaborative saved millions of taxpayer dollars for special education programs.

Collaboratives stand to benefit student populations in need of special education the most. They have long been active in expanding resources in the areas of counseling and accessory programs, but passage of the bill could allow for mental health relief for staff, too.

 “This staffing shortage, along with the increasing mental health issues that are adversely affecting the students in the commonwealth, are overburdening an already depleted field, and will become an even greater crisis if not addressed,” said Haley-Sullivan.

Advocates in the Legislature agree it is past time for this bill to pass, and it is particularly urgent as the pandemic appears to be coming to an end. Mental health is a growing concern and priority for state government and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data suggests that poor mental health is a growing issue for adolescents. 

Yet even if the bill is passed, educational collaboratives will not benefit all students throughout the state equally.

Of the 25 collaboratives, 18 are within the Greater Boston, South Shore, and North Shore areas. central Massachusetts has five collaboratives, and the western part of the state has only two, neither of which include the 20 towns farthest west, where resources were strained even prior to the pandemic.

Despite the unequal access across the state, the established collaboratives are operating in many of the communities with the greatest need for them.

As of 2020, the average expenditure-per-student in the state of Massachusetts was $11,130 per year. According to the Urban Institute’s research on academic funding in the state, $10,000 is the baseline necessary cost-per-student. Of the cities and towns below that threshold, over 75% are in eastern Massachusetts.

Allowing the currently operating collaboratives in the eastern part of the state to expand their programming is an important step, advocates say. Extending the capabilities has the potential to lead to the formation of more across the state, and the MOEC has several initiatives already underway to further inclusivity and reach.

Haley-Sullivan sees the bill as a potentially huge step forward for the capabilities and capacities of educational collaboratives in the communities where they do exist. “It is a keystone element of the effort to allow us to more effectively meet the needs of students going forward.”

This article originally appeared in South Coast Today.

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