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Governor Patrick’s administration makes argument to change the structure of Massachusetts public education

Fundamental change in public education is being debated throughout Massachusetts.

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Website, there are 390 public school districts within the Bay State. Governor Deval Patrick’s administration believes that this situation needs to be assessed and analyzed so as to make drastic changes.

“[The] population has stagnated and in many districts is dropping. The result is a larger and larger share of the budget is spent on brick and mortar, and administrations [are] leaving not enough money for books, teachers and computers,” said Massachsuetts State Senator Stan Rosenberg. Rosenberg is a Mass. senator from Hampshire and Franklin County.

What has been proposed is called regionalization. In its simplest form, regionalization is the consolidation of small districts into larger ones in the hope of cutting administrative costs, taking advantages of economies of scale and offering better educational opportunities for students. The improvements could result from the enhanced ability of larger systems to offer support services.

There are others in the state in opposition of this plan. They argue that Patrick’s administrations’ assumption of cost savings and better opportunities of regionalization is flawed and have contested the administration’s initiative to change the basic structure of Massachusetts’ public education.

In Amherst, the issue is being debated because of the budget deficit facing the school system. Currently, the most optimistic estimate for budget deficits within the Amherst school system is a gap of approximately $1.4 million, according to the Amherst-Pelham regional school district budget development timeline. According to this report, the district’s budget would be $28.6 million to fund public education.

According to the same timeline report, if state funding is not supplied as hoped, the budget gap could widen to $2.2 million.

Currently, the local area K-12 public education system maintains a structure it has held for years.

For grades seven through 12, there is a regional middle school and high school that serves four towns – Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury. The middle school serves grades seven and eight, and the high school holds grades nine through 12.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2008, Amherst has a population of approximately 32,000. Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury are all home to less than 2,000 people and together only supply about 20 percent of students.

Area elementary school dynamics look different from that of the middle and high schools’ structures. Amherst has four elementary schools – Wildwood, Crocker Farm, Fort River and Mark’s Meadow. But, because of the financial tightening Mark’s Meadow will be closed at the end of this school year.

According to an Amherst Public Schools restructuring report, the savings achieved by the closing of Mark’s Meadow will be $406,000 in the first year and $671,000 in the second. Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury have their own town elementary schools.

The district situation is more complicated. There are two different ways schools are connected. In a district, there is one school committee that sets policy, allocates the budget and hires the district’s superintendent. In a union, each school has its own school committee but shares a superintendent.

Pelham and Amherst are joined under Union 26 for their elementary schools under Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez, who is also the superintendent for the regional middle school and high school. Shutesbury and Pelham are part of Union 28 and each have their own school committee. The towns of Erving, New Salem and Wendell are also a part of Union 28 but those towns send their students to a different middle school and high school.

“I personally would much rather see us regionalized K-12,” said Alisa Brewer, an Amherst Select Board member. “From the standpoint of the administration, right now we talked about the silly situation where we have people who work for us that get three separate pay checks.” The superintendent and other administrators for example, get a paycheck from the Amherst schools, the Pelham School and the region. This is because each school committee – and in this case there are three – allocates a budget, and therefore apportion a piece of money for those in some administrative roles.

Many from the smaller towns believe that the local control they exert over their local elementary school is vital to its success. Within the small towns, it is believed by many that the ability to set a budget and make policy for their small school that often teaches just over 100 students, allows them to control a treasure for the community and create an excellent source of education for the kids.

To weigh the issue, a regionalization sub-committee formed. It combined school committee members from all four area towns to study the idea of regionalization.

“People have said they want to show a good faith effort in studying this issue of regionalization,” said Catherine Sanderson, vice chair of the regional school committee. “The hope was that the schools and the towns would investigate what were the pros and cons of [regionalization]… fiscally and educationally.

“[We want to] be in a position to say either yes it’s a good idea or no it’s not a good idea if the State board came in and said to [regionalize, we] could say here are the reasons why it [does or] doesn’t make sense,” she said.

At the beginning of the process, state pressure to regionalize was high. Rosenberg wants to keep the decision to regionalize in the hands of local towns. “We are not pushing any particular plan as legislators. What we want is local people making local decisions rather than Boston,” said Rosenberg.

Rosenberg explained the bottom line: “The major arguments that are presented against doing this are that local control is better and that we will lose local control if we join larger districts. The second major dynamic is that people, especially at the elementary school level see their elementary school as a treasure and they don’t want to give it up and they don’t want to lose control. Change is difficult for people under all circumstances but this becomes extremely emotional for many people.”

This has been especially true regarding Amherst’s decision to close an elementary school at the University of Massachusetts of 170 kids.

Michael Phillis can be reached at mphillis@student.umass.edu.

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