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UMass professor’s letter skewed school regionalization data

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In the Friday, Feb. 12 edition of this publication, I read a letter to the editor titled “Regionalization might not be the Answer” submitted by James Nehring. The article caught my eye because Mr. Nehring is an Ayer resident with significant experience in public school systems and is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Considering Mr. Nehring’s professional background as an educator and his UMass Web site bio stating his area of focus is the theory and practice of school change, I expected to read a well thought out letter with an alternate solution to regionalization which would provide a leadership thought process for our voters to consider. I was disappointed.

The letter sighted a study by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents titled “M.A.S.S. Small and Rural School District Task Force Report.” All of the excerpts from the study that Mr. Nehring cited from the report can be found in the report’s executive summary, with no consideration for the details the authors diligently detailed in their analysis. Additionally, this very report was instrumental in the discussions, research and resulting conclusions conducted by our own regionalization team from Ayer and Shirley (and previously Lunenburg).

Most of the data and conclusions from the M.A.S.S study supports small school systems over large. The study defines a small school system as one with fewer than 2,000 enrolled students. If regionalization is approved between Ayer and Shirley, the resulting school system will have under 2000 enrolled students, which by definition in the M.A.S.S. study is still considered a small school system.

Mr. Nehring’s letter highlights some “key points” from the M.A.S.S study, the first two quoted excerpts from the executive summary; 1) “The most powerful rationale for consolidation is economic efficiency followed by increased curricular offerings. However, neither of these rationales have any strong support in research.” And 2) The only area where there were statistically significant savings was in administrative costs in the first year; however, these savings were often offset by increases in other costs related to larger and sometimes more impersonal schools (more guidance and discipline services, maintenance, security, and new levels of administration such as coordinators). Interestingly, the research suggests that early administrative savings tend to be very short-term only, as larger organizations have a strong tendency toward creating more extensive and costly administrative bureaucracy within a few years; thus explaining why administrative savings are typically lost within the second year.”

What Mr. Nehring fails to state is that these findings are in relation to the study examining the consolidation of significant school systems (with hundreds of schools) looking to consolidate costs. One of many was in West Virginia where 325 schools were closed over the course of 10 years. Clearly, these findings are not an appropriate comparison to the proposed regionalization between Ayer and Shirley. In fact, the study states that, “There are instances when consolidation does work- usually when voluntarily and thoughtfully planned and initiated, and when the resulting size is not too large.”

Mr. Nehring also quotes the M.A.S.S. study, “Transportation costs can show an initial savings; however, in rural school districts they often increase due to longer distances and restraints upon seat time.” This is also understated. The proposed region is not rural and if regionalization is approved by both Ayer and Shirley, changes in busing students will be negligible to the current process with the largest impact to the middle school students in Shirley.

Although Mr. Nehring’s letter to you offered accurate quotes from the M.A.S.S. Small and Rural School District Task Force Report. executive summary, it did not offer an accurate summary of the study findings nor did his letter offer an alternate fresh solution to regionalization that can help our students reach higher achievement while minimizing taxpayer impact.

As a fiscally conservative voter, I am pleased to support the regionalization vote on March 6 which, if approved by Ayer and Shirley voters, will offer a positive solution to our students and taxpayers alike.

SCOTT SIMMONS

Ayer