Rural schools caught in ‘death spiral’

Enrollment changes can have big impact in sparsely populated districts

ON A SUNNY October day, students play at recess outside Hawlemont Elementary School tucked into the wooded hills of Charlemont, which are electric with fall color. As they head back to class, Wayne Kermenski, the principal, calls them over to visit the animals behind the school’s newly constructed post-and-beam barn. They jump at the opportunity.

The farm animals are the hook that engages the students in lessons about core subjects, such as math and reading. There is no question the animals are a draw. Several boys kneel with handfuls of grain, watching with rapt attention as a few chickens approach. A girl pulls a rabbit out of its hutch and her classmates gather round, taking turns to pet the animal.

Hawlemont’s curriculum wasn’t always so engaging. Several years ago, the school was in the throes of a financial crisis, on the brink of closing its doors. Its turnaround is good news for the surrounding community, but other schools in the hill towns and other rural areas around the state continue to struggle with declining enrollment, flat revenues, and rising costs.  Many rural school districts, educating about 90,000 students statewide, are dealing with some  of the same financial constraints as their urban counterparts. But as they operate in sparsely populated areas, even the smallest changes in enrollment or revenue or expenses are magnified.

“It’s the opposite of economy of scale,” says Michael Buoniconti, the superintendent of the Hawlemont elementary district and the Mohawk Trail Regional Schools. He describes the situation as a “slow death spiral” for rural schools. “No business could possibly operate this way—not for long,” he says.

Hawlemont, which currently educates about 100 students from Charlemont and Hawley, has had declining student enrollment since 2000, when nearly 160 students attended the school.  Fewer students means flat state aid, but salaries and related expenses, which according to Buoniconti, comprise 80 percent of the school budget, continue to rise. “I’ve never been in a place where the salaries go down. They always go up every year,” he says.

Like other rural schools, Hawlemont’s small size offers few opportunities for administrators to trim the budget. At a school with several hundred students and several classes in each grade level, it’s possible to eliminate a position here or there when enrollment declines. But at a rural school, where there is often one class per grade level, the revenue loss from a drop in enrollment is difficult to offset. The remaining students still need a teacher, and the school
still needs at least a part-time guidance counselor, a principal, and a nurse, as well as janitorial, cafeteria, and office support staff.

Five years ago, Hawlemont responded to declining enrollment by combining several grades into a single class. The move was wildly unpopular with parents and teachers alike. Staff turnover increased and program quality suffered, pushing the school into a downward cycle as more parents opted out, sending their children to other schools.

Supt. Michael Buoniconti checks on rabbit hutch with student at Hawlemont Elementary School.

Supt. Michael Buoniconti checks on rabbit hutch with student at Hawlemont Elementary School.

Buoniconti says that competition with charter schools has exacerbated the financial problems of rural districts due to the state’s funding mechanism for charter schools. When a student leaves for a non-charter public school under the state’s school choice program, the sending district loses a set amount of $5,000 per student. But when a student goes to a charter school, the sending district pays the actual costs of educating that student, which is roughly $16,000 at Hawlemont. Buoniconti says that just a few students enrolling in charter schools may signal the loss of a full-time teaching or other staff position.

In 2013, Hawlemont was re-categorized by state education officials as a level 3 school (among the 20 percent lowest performing in the state). According to curriculum director Rachel Porter, the development of the school’s agricultural program was all part of a concerted effort by the school’s teachers, administrators, parents, and community members to save their school. Community volunteers and district staff put in hundreds of volunteer hours, mostly on weekends, building the barn and smaller outbuildings that house the animals.

“It’s been a real shot in the arm for the community,” says Porter, who also lives in Charlemont. “People really came together from both towns around the school—they all wanted it to succeed.”

Hawlemont’s success, however, has had the unanticipated consequence of attracting school-choice students from other elementary schools in the Mohawk Trail district. Those schools now teeter on the same financial precipice that Hawlemont was on a few years back.

“We’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” says Buoniconti, who grew up on pig farm in Hampden County.

Porter says an elementary school is the heart of a town, and the magnet that attracts younger people and new families. “When one closes, it can be the death knell for the town,” she says.

Some rural schools operate in areas that don’t have high-speed internet service, which makes it difficult to attract businesses as well as residents. “Not having internet is like not having electricity,” she says. “What business can operate these days without internet?”

Porter says that while all schools in her district have high-speed internet, they don’t all have sufficient funding to purchase technology such as smart boards and tablets that children in urban and suburban schools take for granted. And many students still lack internet service when they go home after school, creating a challenge for teachers in assigning homework.

Geography throws up another barrier to closing and consolidating elementary schools. Mohawk Trail Regional district, for example, encompasses more than 200 square miles. With a centrally located middle and high school, some older Mohawk Trail students ride the bus for more than two hours a day. The prospect of transporting younger students to a centralized school is one reason Buoniconti continues to push for keeping all the elementary schools open in his districts, “Older kids are more adaptable, but that sort of schedule takes a toll on the younger ones,” he says.

Several years ago, Mohawk’s neighboring district, Gateway Regional Schools, decided to consolidate five elementary schools into two. The move saved operating expenses, but was fraught with problems, as Worthington, one of the district’s more affluent communities, pushed back against the district’s decision to close its elementary school. After successfully getting legislative approval to break their regional contract, Worthington jumped ship, reopening their school under the purview of Hampshire Regional Schools.

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Despite the consolidation, Gateway’s budget and program staff remain stretched thin. Superintendent David Hopson says that over the past few years, financial constraints have whittled away at high school course offerings. “We used to have more than one language, now we offer Spanish,” he says. Other languages as well as more advanced math and science courses are offered online. While online courses offer a rich opportunity for independent learners, “not every student learns well in an online or blended learning setting,” he says.

Buoniconti and Hopson are part of a coalition of rural superintendents who are advocating on Beacon Hill for an additional $23 million of state aid to help rural schools compensate for the fiscal challenges they encounter when enrollment declines. According to Buoniconti, 81 districts may be eligible for such aid.