Study highlights challenges related to demographics, transportation, and state policies and funding
BOSTON, MA — State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump today released a study, Supporting Student and Community Success: Updating the Structure and Finance of Massachusetts Regional School Districts, which provides recommendations to modernize laws and regulations within the regional school district (RSD) structure. State law provides towns with options to regionalize public education across municipal boundaries with the goal of reducing administrative costs. Under this arrangement, the towns in an RSD establish a school committee with proportional representation from each member town. Budgets for RSDs must be approved by town meetings for each town in the district. The state currently has 58 academic regional school districts, which enroll approximately 107,000 students in over 170 communities.
“Planning for the long-term educational and economic vitality of a community is always challenging, and can be incredibly uncomfortable, however it is critically important,” Bump said. “Ensuring student success in our regional school districts will require modernization of funding, governance, and operating structures, and will demand collaboration between state and local educational officials, and lawmakers.”
To address some of the challenges highlighted by the study, Bump has called on the Commonwealth to modernize its funding structure for regional schools by:
· Developing deeper incentives to encourage communities to regionalize, noting that the current incentives do not provide enough enticement for schools to give up some measure of local control;
· Fully funding its commitment to reimburse 100 percent of regional transportation expenses, offer stipends to encourage efficiencies to reduce transportation costs, and allow the use of regional transportation authorities to provide RSD transportation;
· Offering planning grants to explore the combination of existing RSDs into larger groupings; and
· Ensuring greater transparency from the Massachusetts School Building Authority on its decision-making process for districts that close school facilities.
Additionally, in the study, Bump calls on the Legislature to streamline the budget adoption process for RSDs and to examine and revise inconsistent funding formulas for children whose families choose educational options outside of their home community. Bump also called for RSDs to conduct periodic reviews of their regional agreements.
“Whether they live in Boston, Bourne or the Berkshires, Bay Staters recognize that high quality educational opportunities play a critical role in ensuring the vibrancy and financial viability of local communities,” Bump said of the study. “While our state’s educational system is highly regarded throughout the country, our analysis found that the processes governing school regionalization and its funding are antiquated, and have not kept pace with the modern challenges facing communities.”
The study points to demographic changes, long standing structural challenges, and funding shortfalls as key factors that de-incentivize communities from moving forward with new or enhanced school regionalization. During the decade ending with the 2015-16 school year, RSD enrollment declined by 10.5 percent, while statewide public school enrollment declined by just 1.62 percent. Overhead costs, however continue to rise, and state funding is inadequate for many of these districts.
The study notes RSDs face significant challenges related to education funding and reimbursements. For example, Massachusetts law entitles RSDs to a 100 percent reimbursement for school transportation expenses, but state funding has consistently fallen short of this benchmark. In fiscal year 2016, the reimbursement rate from the state was just 73 percent. Additionally, RSDs face high and growing costs for out-of-district placement for students with special needs. These districts also lose state aid to charter schools for transferring students, without seeing a corresponding reduction in costs. The state is also not fully funding statutory reimbursements intended to cushion school districts in the early years of a student transfer to a charter school.
Bump’s office highlights the experiences of the Groton-Dunstable, Berkshire Hills, and Wachusett Regional School Districts as examples of these challenges.
“I appreciate the depth and breadth of the Auditor’s report. We all want to ensure that every student has access to high quality education, is engaged, and is making progress. Regional schools are facing real challenges — shifts in enrollment, unreimbursed costs including transportation, and a range of unfunded or partially funded mandates,” said Dr. Peter Dillion, Superintendent of Berkshire Hills Regional School District. “My hope and expectation is that state and local leaders work together to consider and act on the recommendations within the report. A combination of structural changes, incentives, and technical assistance will go far in setting regional districts and schools up to be successful.”
“As the superintendent of the largest regional school district in Massachusetts, I understand the importance of both state and local funding to provide our students with the high-quality education that they deserve. The Wachusett Regional School District has worked diligently to make the most of the funding, but we have had one of the lowest per pupil expenditures, which is well below even the state average,” said Dr. Darryll McCall, Superintendent of Wachusett Regional School District. “All regional school districts would benefit from 100 percent reimbursement for transportation, as well as making modifications to the funding formula which does not support the true costs associated with items such as health insurance and special education. It is important for leaders at the state and local level to work together toward finding solutions that will help regional districts thrive and our children prosper.”
The Office of the State Auditor’s Division of Local Mandates (DLM) produced the study. In addition to responding to requests from local governments about potential unfunded mandates, DLM also produces Municipal Impact Studies, such as this one, that examine aspects of state law that have significant fiscal impacts on municipalities.
The study is attached.