Mass. Districts Consider Merging To Gain Funding

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Caught in a continuing budget squeeze, a number of school districts in Massachusetts are looking hard this fall at consolidation as a way of shoring up their hard-pressed educational programs.

Not only is the regionalization option playing well among its traditional audience--small, rural districts-it is also showing considerable appeal to suburban systems that are struggling with state-aid cuts and voter resistance to new taxes.

By merging, districts can take advantage of a state law that provides more generous funding to regionalized systems.

At a town meeting last week, residents of Whitman voted to merge their suburban Boston district with that of the neighboring town of Hanson, which was scheduled to vote on the consolidation Saturday.

Residents of two other communities, South Hadley and Granby, will vote this month on the question of merging their schools, while two other districts are within weeks of gaining tentative state approval to proceed with their regionalization plan.

During the past year, some 30 districts have contacted the state education department to explore the possibility of joining with another system, according to Christine M. Lynch, a regionalization specialist for the department.

"Towns are looking at any number of alternatives to maintain programs for their students, and regionalization is one way of doing that," said Ms. Lynch.

In addition to state regionalization incentives, the Massachusetts merger movement also reflects fiscal strains resulting from the economic malaise that still grips New England. A Rhode Island commission currently is considering an idea put forward by Gov. Bruce Sundlun of combining the state's current 37 school districts into no more than 6 regional systems. (See Education Week, May 22, 1991.)

Aid Cuts, Tax Defeats

Like many Massachusetts districts, South Hadley and Granby have had their state aid cut in recent years, while at the same time their communities have not approved budgets that offset the losses.

Granby voters have twice this year defeated overrides of Proposition 2 1/2, a state measure that limits the amount of locally generated revenue. As a result, the district, which had its budget cut 9.5 percent this year, has eliminated such programs as art, music, home economics, interscholastic athletics, and advanced languages.

If the merger plan goes through, Granby will be able to restore many of those cuts, officials say. And South Hadley will be able to cut its teacher-student ratio and avoid building additional classrooms for a growing elementary population, according to Superintendent Chester L. Towne.

In the first year of consolidation, South Hadley and Granby would get about $1.16 million in additional funding; in the second year, the combined district in suburban Springfield would be earmarked for an extra $4.6 million, according to Mr. Towne.

Due to cutbacks in regional school-district entitlements, however, Mr. Towne estimated that the district would receive additional funding of between $3.5 million and $4 million in the second year.

Mr. Towne conceded that there has been some opposition to consolidation, which would seem to run counter to the state's prized tradition of local autonomy. 'Where is some fear of loss of control," he observed.

Nonetheless, Mr. Towne said he expects to see more districts merge. "I think it is a more efficient use of resources," he argued, adding that without regionalizing, "you take a community like Granby and [it] is not going to be able to survive."

Not Just for Money

While acknowledging that the additional money will be beneficial, district officials maintain that they decided to explore regionalization chiefly as a way of improving the educational programs they can offer.

"We see this as providing opportunities for oar children in curriculum and breadth of activities that they would not be able to have without regionalization," said W. William Berglas, superintendent of the Granby schools.

"You can't merge just because you get the additional aid," he argued. "If you do it just for the money, then it never works out."

The state, in fact, would nix any regionalization plan aimed solely at more money, said Ms. Lynch. Districts must prove that the process will improve education and administration.

"If you are too large, you cannot benefit from regionalization," said Ms. Lynch. 'q"he state would look very seriously where a large town came in wanting to regionalize."

Regionalization is also off limits to city school districts.

Such combinations tend to work best, Ms. Lynch said, with districts that are compatible in size, demographics, and educational philosophy.

Such apparently is the case with Whitman and Hanson, which merged 30 years ago at the high-school level and now are on the way to combining their elementary programs.

"It just didn't make any sense feeding [the high school] with two independent elementary systems," said Superintendent John Pini of Whitman.

Mr. Pini said it also would be easier for Whitman and Hanson to unite because they have already maneuvered through the political land mines posed by high-school mergers, such as school colors and mascots.

When he first put the concept before the school committee two years ago, Mr. Pini said, he did so with some trepidation. But, he said, there has been virtually no opposition throughout the process, as people have looked beyond the issue of local control to face the fiscal realities.

"They just cannot support individual systems anymore," Mr. Pini added.

Vol. 11, Issue 05, Page 20

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