Regionalization committee debate options for regionalizing local area schools
On Thursday, Oct. 8, the regionalization committee met to discuss several scenarios that emerged from a study conducted over the summer on the economic consequences of regionalization of area public K-6 schools.
The first option would be to expand Union 26, which currently includes Amherst and Pelham, Mass., elementary schools, to include Leverett, Mass., and Shutesbury, Mass. The second scenario is to expand all four towns into one region from K-12. The most economically drastic choice would be to expand the region to encompass all four towns’ K-12 students and close Pelham elementary school. In doing this, sixth graders would be moved from their local elementary schools to the Amherst Regional Middle School.
A potential cost savings of $9,000 was found for the first scenario, which can be seen as a negligible amount in an education budget of $53.5 million for all four towns.
Don Gibavic of Leverett, a member of the regionalization committee, said during the meeting, “The only reason we are here is money.” After analyzing the first scenario, the committee decided there was nothing to be saved.
According to the committee’s research, the second situation would potentially save around $232,000. These savings would mainly be attributed to possible reimbursement of transportation costs. Because of issues with dissolving school unions and the loss of the school committees in the smaller towns, the regionalization committee questioned the potential cost savings of the second scenario as well.
The final possibility raised the most attention amongst the committee.
“If you don’t get rid of people or buildings, you don’t really save money,” said Tom Powers, a member of the regionalization committee that presented the study to the group. All told, the final plan could save about 1.2 percent of the school budget or approximately $638,000, according to the report.
At first glance, this solution could offer real savings. More than $600,000 in savings could mean much of the difference between a worst-case scenario in the Amherst town budget circumstances or its best case.
However, the more someone looks into this debate, the more the old cliché applies: “The devil is in the details.” Here is how the $638,000 savings breaks down with the following conclusions from the committee.
The closing of Pelham Elementary would mean the building would be completely unused, and this would potentially save the region $220,000. Additionally, staff reductions would save about $186,000 in salaries and benefits.
However, despite its vacancy, the school building would still require maintenance. The debt procured as a result of the building’s recent renovations and past expenses would still have to be paid, and this raises the question of what the region’s true level of savings would be.
Powers concluded the report by saying, “[It] will be hard to realize [savings] due to the difficulty of removing a building from service … Closing a school offers little or no benefit over union or region expansion. No need to consider further.” Later, Powers would call the Pelham school a ‘complex asset,’ as it would be difficult to sell a school because it was built for a specific purpose.
The committee determined that cost savings would not be enough to warrant the third scenario to be considered for financial reasons alone.
“[Let’s] write [a] letter to Stan Rosenberg that we aren’t going to save any money,” said Gibavic.
The study assumed a number of variables that could be debated. Shutesbury and Leverett combined would increase the number of students in the potential four-town region by about 240.
The other schools would absorb the Pelham students, and this would be made possible due to the declining number of school-age children in the area.
The committee felt that in this scenario, one administrator would be added to the regional offices, along with two clerical assistants. They assumed no teachers would be laid off from shutting down Pelham – the teachers of Pelham would be redistributed to work at the other regional schools.
The situation also assumes that in the best-case scenario, the Pelham School would act as a net zero and not a real-estate asset that could be sold at a profit.
Another study of area schools came to a drastically different conclusion. “Franklin County Schools: A 2020 Vision,” released in late April of this year, studies the possible cost savings that could be achieved by regionalizing either some or all of Franklin County, among other things. Franklin County includes towns Greenfield, Mass., Deerfield, Mass., and Montague, Mass., as examples, as well as Shutesbury and Leverett.
The study concluded that if you were to combine Franklin County into one school district, you would save an estimated $2.8 million. According to the study, Franklin County currently employs 50.4 people in nine different offices. They envision a region with 26 employees in one office as a possibility.
Joseph Cronin Ed.D., the team leader of the study, put the situation this way. “Franklin County has one percent of the students in the state, three percent of the administrators and six percent of the school committees.” Unlike the Amherst regionalization study which envisioned an additional three people to handle various tasks in the central office, the Franklin County study was much more aggressive in the kind of cuts to administrative services.
When asked why this kind of consolidation and regionalization has not happened yet, Cronin spoke about the nature of small-town schools. “[Leverett and Shutesbury] love their small school. They love their arrangement…A lot of UMass faculty members live in Leverett.”
One of those UMass faculty members is mathematics professor Farshid Hajir, the chair of the regional school committee. “For each of the towns’ [regionalization] would mean giving up some of their autonomy over their elementary schools because right now, Leverett has a school committee, Amherst has a school committee … and those school committees have budgetary control over those schools.”
This was a pressing point in the debate surrounding this idea of regionalization; local control, local control, local control. “Unequivocally, I think [local control] is a good thing,” said Hajir who also questioned the reliability of the Franklin County study. “There is absolutely no evidence for regionalization being a source for cost savings. What’s missing is the increase in administrative complexity … Complex systems (like bigger districts) require more administrators.”
During the regionalization committee’s meeting, commenting on what would be done after the study had been presented, Hajir said, “We are trying to achieve preservation of what we have.”
These two viewpoints outline the kinds of differences that come from the various perspectives concerning how to achieve real cost savings in public education. From the various meetings, small towns maintaining control over their own schools, was a paramount concern.
At the Oct. 8 meeting of the regionalization committee, a decision was reached to convene a subcommittee to look at “what is best for the children as the schools get smaller.” They wanted to know if there was an educational benefit to regionalization beyond just the cost savings.
What was not debated was the drastically different political climate that the regionalization committee was operating under.
“The idea now is to have another discussion about [how] we can do this better, and [to discuss if] it makes sense to come up with new forms of collaboration or even re-regionalizing moving to some larger configurations in order to maximize the number of dollars that are going into education as opposed to ancillary services and other expenses,” said Massachusetts Sen. Stan Rosenberg.
The big word that should not be missed in Rosenberg’s quote is “discussion.” Rosenberg said that, “At the beginning, [the Deval Patrick administration] talked about statewide imposed solutions.”
This pressure is no longer on the regionalization committee.
“The reason we started this whole thing is because of state pressure,” said Hajir. “Now that state pressure is not there.”
“We are not pushing any particular plan as legislators,” said Rosenberg. “What we want is local people making local decisions, rather than Boston making the decision.”
Rosenberg said that in the future, he sees “the possibility of mandated action.”
On top of everything else, the decline in the school-age population levels puts a twist in the debate.
“At some point, the population is going to become acute,” said Powers.
If, as is being talked about as a possibility in four or five years, the sixth grades of all four towns moves to the middle school, Pelham would have just 76 students, 28 of which are school-choice kids – kids that don’t live in the district of the Pelham School but enter a lottery to attend the school because of its high quality. If school choice opportunities were cancelled, Pelham would only teach an estimated 48 kids, according to the study done by the regionalization committee. These kinds of declining numbers raise questions as to whether or not these schools can be practically sustained as population levels stagnate.
Hajir believes that one key to helping the system is collaboration between the schools. “There have been ideas that have emerged such as the adoption of the same textbook for mathematics in the sixth grades in all four towns,” he said. “Economies of scale cost savings are thoroughly possible through participation in collaboratives.”
“Collaboratives … allow school districts to increase their capacity to offer a full range of services to kids and also give you the ability to achieve economies of scale to achieve greater borrowing and purchasing power,” said Hajir. “But not by increasing the complexities of our systems and decreasing the amount of local control that we have in our schools.”
“The major arguments that are presented against doing this are that local control is better, and 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,” said Rosenberg.
This is where area public education stands. Local control and individual school committees controlling the budgets of small elementary school “treasures” is immensely popular here – especially in the smaller towns. The debate in the regionalization committee suggests that financially, there is no benefit. Educational benefits will be looked into in the future, and with declining populations, some of the small elementary schools are worried about remaining viable in their own right, making their control over it even tighter. Money savings is hotly debated, but with budgetary uncertainty, the picture is not clear as to how – should large future cuts be needed – the schools will adjust.
Michael Phillis can be reached at email@example.com.