SHIRLEY — Selectman Kendra Dumont brought up the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District and funding issues the two member towns are facing during a visit with selectmen by state Sen. James Eldridge and state Rep. Jen Benson.
When the towns voted to create the new district, primary reasons cited were educational growth and financial stability, aims that proponents said the two independent school districts couldn’t achieve on their own.
Now, that long-range vision seems to be collapsing under the weight of current challenges similar to those faced before the district was formed, such as how to adequately and affordably fund the school budget and maintain municipal services as well.
“The governor needs to be aware of our regionalization problems,” Dumont said.
At the time, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was an avid cheerleader, rolling out praise and hope for the formation of the new district and pledging to support it. Now the state seems to be backing off.
Citing three new school districts formed around the same time, Benson said she pushed for the one-time, per-pupil bonus aid they were all counting on but didn’t get.
“They, too, feel the pain,” she said. DESE may have “shifted focus” since then, she said, leaving its trial balloons adrift and the communities in the lurch.
One way to close the gap would be with regional school transportation aid, which has been a moving target for years and could go up as the field levels off.
“I think you’ll see fewer new regions formed … it has proved to be extremely difficult,” Benson posited.
Selectmen Chairman David Swain pointed to “skyrocketing” special-education costs that added more than $500,000 to the ASRSD budget this year. He asked if the state could pick up more of those costs via reimbursements.
For now, there’s only the circuit-breaker, Eldridge ventured.
But Benson said there could be another way. She cited a working group she headed last session and a bill filed to address high-cost special-ed placements by shifting those costs from school districts to the state.
Explaining the bill, she said that special-needs students with extraordinary and ongoing educational and physical challenges that call for out-of-district placements can be identified during the early-intervention process. Then, the cost of their education would become an assigned line item in the state budget, following them throughout their school years and into adulthood, no matter where they live in the state.
The proposed scenario she described would provide “more continuity” for students, parents and caregivers and “relief” for districts that now must struggle to pay ever-increasing tuition and transportation costs for students’ out-of-district placements.
Despite its practical purpose, the bill sounded more ideal than realistic in terms of its prospects for passing. But Benson said it created some stir, with positive feedback.
“We got favorable reports … people are talking,” she said, including legislators with clout.
Citing the “crippling costs” districts are dealing with, Benson said the chairman of the House Education Committee “totally gets it.”
Maybe so, but it’s not enough to know that others “get it,” Dumont persisted. “We still need to look to other districts” to form a coalition to sit down with DESE, she said.
Benson liked the idea of forming a “regional schools caucus” to host a briefing at the Statehouse, letting lawmakers know what some of the hurdles are and perhaps sparking them to “think outside to box” for solutions.
“There are lots of things to talk about, so it’s key to keep that conversation going,” she said.
Getting back to nuts-and-bolts financing issues, Dumont said that regional school transportation funding is another state promise that should be kept.
When that “pot” is fully funded, the money goes straight to education, Swain pointed out.
Benson agreed. With “an amount of dollars” earmarked for the purpose, it’s best to “maximize existing avenues” rather than invent new ones, she said.