Mohawk study offers ideas for saving money

 

Greenfield Recorder 01/22/2015, Page A01

By DIANE BRONCACCIO Recorder Staff

BUCKLAND — The state’s geographically largest public school system is also the most sparsely populated: the 253-square mile Mohawk Trail Regional School District encompasses almost 530 road miles, yet has a density of less than two school students per mile, according to the Long Range Planning Committee. Because of its population sparsity and many miles between students and their schools, Mohawk’s per-pupil costs average about $2,700 more per pupil than the state average, according to the group.

How to cut the small town burden of higher-than-state average costs for education without closing schools was the focus of this twoyear study group, which made eight recommendations to the Mohawk Trail Regional School Committee, to area legislators and to about 50 to 60 residents and town officialsWednesday night.

Chairman Joseph Judd pointed out that a fine study of Mohawk’s financial problems had been done in 2007 and went largely ignored, possibly because it recommended closing schools. Judd urged the Mohawk Trail School Committee, which requested this study, along with recommendations for cost-saving measures, to come back to the towns at annual town meeting time with a response to the report and an action plan.

At this point, said Judd, the new panel decided not to consider school closures, since each schools serves as an important social nucleus of its town. Instead, the committee looked at sharing the school buildings with other appropriate community services, such as senior centers or libraries, as a way to more efficiently use the school buildings, which are now only used to about 57 percent of their capacity. Also, he said, bringing in other community services to lease school building space could add to the school building’s stature as a hub of community and culture.

According to the report, Mohawk’s district population grew 20 about percent during the 1970s and 1980s, then slowed down to about a 5 percent growth rate during the 1990s, when Mohawk school building expansions and renovations, partially paid for with state School Building Association (MSBA) funds, were completed. But after 2000, the total area population “dropped dramatically,” by at least 5 percent, according to the report.

The report says the overall downward population of young children seems likely to continue, as the median age of the population of the Mohawk towns is getting older. The report notes that, while the student enrollment drop “has its roots in the overall population decline,” the district is also losing almost 28 percent of its school-aged children to education programs outside of Mohawk. These include: private schools (7.5 percent), vocational schools (7 percent), other public schools and special education programs (5.9 percent), home schooling (3.8 percent) and charter schools (3.6 percent).

Five of the nine district towns spend more than half their annual budgets on education.

The committee made the following eight recommendations:

∎ Share the buildings. Find alternative uses for unused space in schools. The recommendation is for the School Committee to find appropriate and compatible multiple uses for the excess space in school buildings. Second, Mohawk will need to work with the state MSBA and state legislators to ensure that the additional building uses won’t result in penalties related to the school building loans from the 1990s.

∎ Switch to alternative energy sources for heat and electricity cost savings. The committee says the potential 30-year savings for Mohawk, Buckland-Shelburne and Colrain schools alone would be about $5.3 million over a 30-year period. The suggestions include converting from oil heat to renewable wood chip or wood pellet heating systems and solar panels.

∎ Pursue full state reimbursement for regional transportation costs. The committee reported that full state transportation reimbursement for the 250-square mile school district would have meant nearly $1.6 million in more revenue between fiscal year 2008 and FY 2013.

∎ Conduct, analyze and develop student-retention “action plans” based on student exit surveys. The committee believes surveying both students who use School Choice to come in or who leave the school district would provide helpful information that could lead to minimizing enrollment losses through SchoolChoice.

∎ Advocate for a “rurality factor” to be incorporated into the Chapter 70 state aid formula.

∎ Promote greater first-hand knowledge of school district operations by School Committee members. The committee asked that each School Committee member visit at least two schools per semester, so that they get to know the schools, teachers, and what their issues are.

∎ Support and participate in the effort to bring affordable broadband Internet access to member towns. Many schools now require students to access homework and other materials online, but households in six Mohawk towns lack access to high-speed Internet, and only some in other towns have access through Comcast Cable. Committee member Beth Bandy said the lack of Internet access in Mohawk towns could be a deterrent to young families moving here. It also holds down economic growth in these towns, she said.

∎ Revise the regional agreement, so that a majority vote by member towns would be possible for making future changes to this agreement. Currently all towns must vote “yes” for any changes in it. The committee has considered either a weighted-vote or a one-vote-per-town voting system for all regional agreement changes, with two exceptions: A vote to close any school or a vote to reassign district students to another school would require approval of the town.

State Reps. Stephen Kulik and Paul Mark drove out from Boston to hear the presentation, before returning to Boston today to begin the first day of the budget process with new Gov. Charlie Baker. “There are a number of recommendat ions here that should lead to action,” Kulik told the group. “We will absolutely work with you. We’re committed to working with you on this.” But Kulik pointed out there is a $765 million mid-year budget shortfall, which may make it difficult to recover the regional transportation aid that was cut by Gov. Deval Patrick before he left office. He and Mark said Mohawk should keep fighting for that aid, which was one of the initial incentives for the towns banding together to form a regional K-12 district in the 1990s.

Kulik said the legislators were also going to ask new Attorney General Maura Healy for a legal opinion on the transportation cut, which cut about $200,000 for Mohawk transportation. “Maybe that won’t look as bad as it does today,” he said.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277