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Globe Editorial

9,750 kids, 20 school boards? Time to combine systems

December 13, 2010

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FRANKLIN COUNTY in Western Massachusetts is brimming with school superintendents and administrators. They serve at the pleasure of small town officials unwilling to sacrifice even a modicum of control over their schools, even if doing so would benefit their children. No place in Massachusetts is in greater need of regionalization than the 26 communities of Franklin County — and nowhere is the upside of combining forces more evident.

A 2009 study by the nonprofit New England School Development Council found nine superintendents, 30 school principals, and 20 school committees spread across a county with only 9,750 students. A typical school district of similar size would manage with one superintendent, one school committee, and a dozen or so principals. Not surprisingly, per-pupil spending in Franklin County runs more than $1,000 above the statewide average of $11,858, according to the report. Meanwhile, the county spends less than the state average on classroom teachers, specialists, counselors, and professional development for educators.

State Representative Martha Walz of Boston, who chairs the Legislature’s education committee, is heavily promoting regionalization as a means to improve classrooms and reduce costs. Walz clashed with school boards and teachers’ unions this year when she led a successful effort to raise the cap on charter schools. Now it’s time to tackle school districts that put a higher value on autonomy — and local bureaucracy — than on educating children effectively and efficiently. On Wednesday, Walz will chair the first meeting of a new school regionalization commission aimed at jump-starting the conversation about topics ranging from shared purchasing to shared buildings. Unfortunately, both the commission and the Legislature lack the authority to put real pressure on towns to dissolve inefficient schools or school districts.

Massachusetts has almost as many school districts (329) as it does cities and towns (351). Almost 30 percent of the districts enroll fewer than 1,000 students, and 53 districts — among them Leverett, Shutesbury, Sunderland, and Conway in Franklin County — have fewer than 500 students. Orange, also in Franklin County, even has separate school boards for its elementary and high schools.

While some small schools and districts make a virtue of their size, most struggle with fixed costs when enrollment drops, have trouble attracting skilled administrators, and lack the capacity to step in when schools perform poorly. Still, resistance to mergers is strong, especially at the elementary school level — even in the face of successful models, such as Shelburne and Buckland, which share an elementary school.

The New England School Development Council floated several alternatives: placing Franklin County under one unified school district, for instance, would save $2.8 million in central administration costs, while dividing the county into three districts would save $1.2 million in the same category. Overall, the report concluded that the county’s schools could save as much as $12 million, or 10 percent of overall costs, through regionalization.

Outgoing state Representative Christopher Donelan of Orange has embraced the idea, noting that such savings would be enough to guarantee every student in the county a free education at Greenfield Community College. But Donelan said he’s been “enormously frustrated’’ by the stubbornness of local officials and school personnel.

State education officials will need to provide incentives for regionalization, especially transportation funds for rural towns. But the major roadblock to regionalization today isn’t dirt roads. It’s dusty thinking that keeps people trapped in 19th-century patterns of school and town governance.