School officials, students advocate for more rural aid during ‘critical’ legislative session

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 05-10-2023 5:16 PM

BOSTON — School committee members, administrators and students with the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts, along with elected officials from member towns, converged on the State House earlier this month to further advocate for increasing rural school aid.

“The current legislative session on Beacon Hill is shaping up as a critical one for advancing the goal of fair and equitable financial support for schools and towns in rural western Massachusetts,” said Mohawk Trail School Committee Chair Martha Thurber. “For the first time, the issues facing our rural communities are truly beginning to receive needed attention.”

Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2024 includes $7.5 million in proposed rural aid, which represents a $2 million, or 36%, increase over the current fiscal year. The House’s proposal includes $10 million and the Senate includes $15 million. While each proposal represents an increase, each figure remains smaller than the major funding increase of at least $60 million that was recommended by the Special Commission on Rural School Districts.

The 26-person group, which also included five officials from the Gateway Regional School District, showed up on Beacon Hill during the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) Day on the Hill. They wore bright pink shirts that read “Support Rural Schools.”

“I think we made quite an impression,” Thurber said.

Attendees feel their message was heard all day long. Ken Bertsch, a member of the Hawlemont School Committee, explained that during a presentation MASC hosted, Vice President Jason Fraser led off with rural school aid as being a huge issue facing education in Massachusetts.

“He was quite passionate about it,” Bertsch said. “It was encouraging.”

The local school officials met with their legislators as well as people from the Legislature’s education subcommittees to get their point across to support rural school aid. Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, and Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, have already filed legislation that would fully fund the recommendations of the Special Commission on Rural School Districts and are supporters of the push for increased aid.

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While the Student Opportunity Act provides extra funding for schools in impoverished communities and with high numbers of English language learners, it leaves rural schools with declining enrollment without the aid they need. Thurber said rural school districts are in financial peril, with towns that have a limited tax base using upwards of 50% of the annual budget just to fund schools.

“It is a battle we have been waging for years,” she said. “It has become really critical.”

Temporary COVID-19 relief funding from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) has supported local schools for the past couple years, but is set to run out. For example, the Mohawk Trail Regional School District received roughly $1.48 million in ESSER funds and will finish its remaining sum in FY24.

“We need money we can rely on,” Thurber said.

She hopes the state will eventually add rural factors into its Chapter 90 school funding formula. She added that she understands this is a slow process, and it will take time to get the proper amount of aid that rural schools need.

“The rural school report gave the why,” she said of the Special Commission on Rural School Districts’ findings. “We need effective legislation and money to support us.”

Reach Bella Levavi at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.

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