Globe Editorial

State should add incentives for regional school districts

July 7, 2010

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THE BENEFITS of regional school systems are clear in principle but often difficult to realize in practice. It was hardly surprising recently when the Cohasset School Committee rejected Hull’s entreaty to merge school districts. Cohasset, a town of 7,300 people with a median household income of $84,200, clearly felt it would be taking on an undue burden; with 11,000 people and a median household income of $52,400, Hull is more populous and less prosperous. Cohasset School Committee members had good reason to wonder what Hull would bring to the table, particularly after Hull voted down a $2.3 million Proposition 2 1/2 property tax override targeted for its schools. As Cohasset School Committee member Alfred Slanetz told the Globe, “Cohasset schools are in a fairly good position right now. We are one of the few districts that hasn’t been cutting programs or doing layoffs.’’

Nonetheless, the short-lived episode raises long-range questions. If Massachusetts wants to promote regional districts, the state must provide greater incentives to encourage towns to team up even when their demographics differ.

Hull hoped to persuade Cohasset that a merged district would benefit both towns by creating economies of scale. State education officials want districts to have such conversations, believing that mergers may result in a more complete range of services for students, from advanced placement to special education. Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said if the economy remains sluggish, small towns will likely have to consider mergers. Jeff Wulfson, associate commissioner for the state Department of Education, described a U-shaped curve for school financing: Small districts are expensive to run; mid-sized districts are less expensive, as administrative costs are divided across a larger number of students; and huge districts become more expensive again, as their central offices expand and administrative costs rise. He said the “sweet spot’’ of cost efficiency seems to be in districts of 4,000 to 10,000 students.

Cohasset has only 1,500 students. Hull has only 1,225. Both towns, like Massachusetts overall, expect enrollment to drop in the coming years. Cohasset is no stranger to asking for help itself, as it works with Hingham and other larger towns to share a food service director and purchase fuel.

None of this is to say that Cohasset should definitely merge with Hull. But the time is coming where neighboring towns, regardless of income, should consider lasting partnerships with open minds. It is encouraging to see that Cohasset is willing to discuss with Hull ways their schools might together boost their buying power. That is a sign that Cohasset understands that, as the demands on local budgets multiply, more school regionalization is only a matter of time.

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