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Lawmakers say launch of Rural Schools Commission ‘a big win’ for region

  • ADAM HINDS

  • NATALIE BLAIS



Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2021

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 panel 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 affecting 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 common 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.”

Hinds and Blais said the commission is charged with holding no fewer than five public meetings and will file a report with its recommendations when it is done. The commission will see the work through to legislation that will dictate how rural school aid is determined in the future.

“This is finally getting the necessary attention it deserves,” Hinds said of rural schools’ challenges. “We’re ready to move forward with the work.”

Blais noted that school funding is an important issue in western Massachusetts. “This was a topic I heard over and over about from constituents from the moment I started campaigning,” she said. “People were concerned about the fiscal conditions of their rural school districts.”

Blais said she’s happy that the state and its legislators — and now the Rural Schools Commission — are identifying the unique challenges faced by schools in rural areas.

“This commission and its work is a big win for the region,” she said. “We’re all working collaboratively to get this done. We’re shining a light and focusing on those challenges. Steps must be taken to put rural school districts on a sustainable path. That’s what we are going to do.

“Our time has come,” Blais said. “We can’t wait any longer. This should have been done some time ago.”