GREENFIELD — State Sen. Adam Hinds and state Rep. Natalie Blais recently chaired the first meeting of the state’s Rural Schools Commission, and they expect that the body will have recommendations by the end of the year for how to permanently fund rural school districts.
The commission is tasked with identifying long-term solutions to the issues that are unique to schools in rural areas, though Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said other schools that have low or declining enrollment could end up being included as well.
“This is a continuation of the Student Opportunity Act process,” Hinds said. “The work of this commission is crucial to ensure all students in the state receive a quality education, no matter their ZIP code or distance from the state capital.”
The Rural Schools Commission was created by the Student Opportunity Act to investigate “robust long-term solutions” to issues uniquely impacting schools in rural areas. The state’s creation of the commission was partly due to the discrepancies in funding between rural schools and their urban and suburban counterparts.
Hinds and Blais said Chapter 70 school aid’s funding formula does not adequately address the needs of rural schools facing financial challenges or declining enrollment, or other concerns unique to rural areas.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued a report in 2018 on the fiscal conditions of rural schools across the state and found those schools pay more per student for teachers, aides and transportation.
“There is much work to be done,” said Blais, D-Sunderland. “I look forward to delving in to better understand the challenges our schools are facing and identifying meaningful solutions that will truly make a difference in the long run.”
While legislators have begun to address some of the challenges with the development of a rural school aid line item in the budget, Hinds said such schools have yet to see their financial challenges addressed in the way other districts have as a result of funding changes. Hinds wants to see rural school aid become permanent, not just a line item.
“This commission is taking the next step in addressing the unique fiscal challenges of rural schools,” Hinds said. “One of the biggest issues will be to take rural school aid and make it a permanent part of the annual budget, make it part of the formula.”
The legislators said the commission will make recommendations for improving and expanding the rural school aid grant program and regarding the feasibility of including a low and declining student enrollment factor in the existing rural school aid formula. The state provided rural school aid of $1.1 million to schools in Franklin County and the North Quabbin area this year.