Almost everyday there is a report somewhere in the news about the crisis facing our public schools. Declining enrollments, the impact of charter schools and school choice, increased transportation costs, insufficient funding in general – the problems are as varied as the individual school districts themselves.
In Franklin County, the most rural county in the state, these problems are exacerbated by geographic isolation. Approximately 72,000 people live in the county, and roughly 8,200 of them are students attending a variety of regional and pre-kindergarten through grade 12 municipal districts. In a metropolitan area, such a school system would exist within a few city blocks. In Franklin County, it’s scattered over a 725 square mile area.
The problem confronting state and local policymakers is twofold: One, we must try to get more money for the myriad problems in the individual districts; and two, we must demonstrate to state budget writers and county taxpayers that we are doing everything we can at the local level to address these issues as efficiently as possible.
We cannot achieve one without the other.
What’s needed is a long-term strategic vision and educational model that creates schools and districts in Franklin County that are economically viable and efficient while still able to deliver quality education programs and services to all students.
During the past few weeks, the Franklin County legislative delegation, along with the county’s superintendents and municipal officials, including the Greenfield Mayor and various selectboard members, and representatives from Greenfield Community College and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, have been meeting to devise a strategy to address the financial issues that affect Franklin County schools.
Phase One of our strategy is to obtain a “big picture” assessment of the state of public education in the entire county and use that to guide us toward solutions. Instead of trying to solve School District A’s problem and then moving on District B, C and D, we are attempting to learn how all the individual districts fit within the overall educational goals of Franklin County. This approach has never been tried before. What we have now are various stories of crisis from individual districts without any comprehensive framework to help policymakers judge the efficacy of any proposed solutions. Without the picture on the box, the individual puzzle pieces don’t make as much sense.
We are currently in the process of securing significant funding from various sources, including the state and interested private foundations, to hire a consulting firm, one with absolutely no preconceived notions about what might work in the county, to provide us the big picture and recommend solutions. Our plan is to advertise in major education publications sometime after June 22nd, with work commencing in August or September, to be completed early in 2008.
The goal of this project is the development of educational models that maximize the money spent in the classroom, that help Franklin County operate schools that provide quality education to all students, and that are financially solvent over the long term. Toward that end, the consultant team will analyze existing conditions throughout the county to determine which practices are working well and which could be improved, explore the potential cost savings benefits of regional opportunities, and compare Franklin County with regional school models currently at work in other states.
Once the study is complete, then Phase Two of our work as policymakers and citizens will begin. The study will provide us with a variety of options, as well as a vision for the future. But it will be up to the people of Franklin County to carry it through. Decisions on education are by their very nature monumental because their impacts will be felt for generations. It is our hope that this approach will help us devise smarter solutions and avoid rolling the dice with our children’s future.
By State Senator Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst) and State Representative Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington); Co-authored by State Senators Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) and Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) and State Representatives Christopher Donelan (D-Orange) and Denis Guyer (D-Dalton)