State breaking its promises to regional schools

Struggling districts not receiving money they are owed

FOR MOST MASSACHUSETTS RESIDENTS, test scores and property taxes are top of mind when thinking about public education. But for parents of students in regional school districts, especially rural ones, the worry goes much deeper—to questions of the viability of their school district and whether their kids are getting the same quality education as their peers in suburban and even urban districts.

That is because regional school districts are bearing some unique responsibilities and costs. Regional school districts are based on the sensible notion that economies of scale can be achieved by uniting school systems across municipal boundaries. However, recognizing that the savings from reduced administrative and building maintenance costs are often offset by higher transportation funding needs, state government pledged many years ago to reimburse regional school districts for their transportation spending. They even wrote it into the general laws. It was a promise made but not kept.

This broken promise, along with rising costs, a lack of competitive bids for bus contracts, stagnant overall funding from the state, dwindling student populations, and intra-district squabbles have left many of these regional school districts with inadequate funding and concerns about the future.

A report recently released by my office examined these challenges facing regional school districts and laid out steps that the state can take—both in the short-term and long—to support these schools:

  1. Fully fund regional transportation costs. Unlike municipal districts, regional districts are required to provide bus transportation for students in all grades. The Commonwealth’s promise to provide 100 percent reimbursement of regional transportation costs has consistently fallen short of its goal. This year it was 73 percent. The last time regional districts received the full 100 percent reimbursement was over 15 years ago.
  2. Fully fund homeless student transportation costs. Currently, the Commonwealth covers less than 40 percent of the costs of transporting homeless students living with their families in temporary quarters, despite a determination by my office several years ago that this is a cost that the state is legally obligated to fully cover.
  3. Eliminate the arcane laws that prohibit regional districts from working with regional transportation authorities to provide school transportation. In addition to allocating full funding for regional schools, lawmakers should give regional schools more tools to reduce costs and more effectively use their limited resources. One way to do this is by allowing regional districts to partner with regional transit authorities and bid on school contracts, a practice that is currently prohibited under law. Repealing these laws would increase competition and save taxpayer dollars.
  4. Establish expertise within the state to provide districts with technical assistance. Given the complexity and costs associated with school district governance and financing, districts would benefit from access to expertise to assist in reviewing these contracts and providing technical support and guidance to reduce costs for both regular day and special education needs.
In the long-term, state lawmakers should support legislation to create a Foundation Budget Review Commission for regional school districts. We must confront the challenges to regional districts posed by demographics and outdated funding assumptions used to calculate state aid, which is further straining budgets. Enrollment in Massachusetts public schools has declined by 1.6 percent, yet the numbers for the 58 regional districts shows declines of 10.5 percent. This bill would create a broad-based commission of legislators, educators, and stakeholders to examine the funding process and formula for regional school districts.

Addressing these long-term challenges and incentivizing further regionalization will require exploration of creative alternative structures, governance, and finance for regional districts.

Meet the Author
The winds of economic and social change are difficult to control, and migration from rural communities is likely to continue, at least until transportation, telecommunications, and employment options improve. However, we can and must enhance the quality of the public education for the 100,000 students who receive schooling from our state’s regional school districts. By keeping our promises to regional schools and providing them with adequate resources, we can bolster the future possibilities for our communities and the educational experience of our young citizens. As state leaders, we should do everything we can to support the efforts of local leaders who are taking on the difficult task of planning the long-term educational outlook in their communities.

Suzanne Bump is the state auditor.