Thursday, December 08, 2011

Hull High: Another Case for Regionalization

Taking Attendance is an excellent report by journalist Johanna Seltz in today's Boston Globe, in which she describes the problems associated with dwindling enrollment at in the town of Hull, particularly in its high school. Anticipating one of my first questions, she is careful to document this as a demographic trend, rather than a shift toward private schools. She then documents some of the reasons for the trend, including changes in available housing. The article also hints at a bit of a positive-feedback, or spiraling affect, as the problems of shrinking schools are to some degree self-feeding: fewer families lead to fewer families.

Shrinking enrollments reduce variable costs and crowding, allowing for a more tranquil and perhaps more productive learning environment. But the fixed costs of maintaining a building are spread over fewer students, the ability to offer specialized courses is reduced, with the definition of "specialized" eventually extending to basics, such as shop and foreign language. In Massachusetts, high fixed costs at the district level are an additional burden, and Seltz reports on the efforts of Hull Superintendent Kathleen Tyrell to address this through regionalization.

As I have written in some of my earlier posts on this topic, only in Massachusetts (and perhaps New Jersey), would the combination of two tiny towns be considered a regional consolidation. Even this, as Tyrell has found, is difficult, especially for a district that is isolated on a long peninsula, limiting its potential partnerships. Even more limiting than the physical situation of Hull, however, is the ideological commitment to "local control" in school districts. It is sadly ironic that school committees and the citizenry at large is not willing to set aside ego in order to cooperate in genuine regional districts at the county level.

The state provides some incentives to regionalize, but it aims too low. Massachusetts has a few hundred school districts, where states of similar size might have a few dozen. Nobody actually agrees on exactly how many -- one has as few as 2 children. (That is not a typo.) Combining Hull with another small town would be an improvement in the short-run, but county-wide districts would be a more reasonable long-term goal.

As illustrated in Hull, the cost of maintaining 351 fiefdoms is simply too high. A regional district could allow for some real creativity, too, perhaps to include magnet schools or shared resources for 50/50 online courses in some subjects.

I understand why Gov. Patrick and Lt. Gov. Murray have been slow to act on the recommendations on this issue from the 2009 Citizens Task Force Report (the relevant section of which I authored). Inertia is difficult to overcome both at the local level and within the state bureaucracies employed to oversee them. But it is long past time for the state to offer stronger incentives to encourage districts that combine the back-office functions not of two or three towns, but of ten or twenty.

As the Globe report suggests, regionalization would not solve all of the problems associated with Hull's slipping demographics. But it would certainly help!

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