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Governmental Structures and The Case of Regional Schools in Massachusetts

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Tafoya
December 22, 2017

Institutional structures dictate policy outcomes. This is a fundamental understanding of political science that has been explored in detail by thinkers from Robert Dahl in the 1950’s to today. This means as we devise governmental institutions we need to examine their impact on the policy environment they shape, both for their tendency to create intended and unintended outcomes. In the New England states, the realms of state and local governmental relations are dictated by the lack of intermediate institutions (no counties or regional governments or very weak ones) which places a heavy reliance on local government to provide services.

Periodically, the states come to their municipalities and encourage regional efforts to encourage more efficient delivery of services. The challenge is there are no ready-made institutions for that effort. So communities are challenged to come together to work through the issues of regionalization. In Massachusetts those efforts involve a wide-range of issues including veteran’s services, health inspections and property assessment. Cooperative arrangements exist in public safety and library services. However, the most frequent and most structured of the relations relate to public schools.

In 1949 Massachusetts passed a law allowing for the contemporary structures related to regional schools. The law and regulations stipulate the process that communities must undergo to form regional school districts. Within certain constraints the law also lays out how they are governed including selection of school committee members and the budgetary approval process. These structures point to the institutional constraints that dictate outcomes. The representational structures are reflective of the underlying communities. This means districts largely elect a proportional number of committee members from each community or give the elected members a proportional vote. The proportions are dictated by population and are designed to protect the one person-one vote rule.

As we examine the budgetary approval process we see the tension that exists in the structures. Under the Massachusetts system, most regional districts apportion the local contribution according to the percentage of school enrollment represented by each town. This means that as costs rise the increase allocated to each community is related to how much their enrollment changed versus the change in other district communities. This contrasts with the typical form of school finance which is based on ability to pay through the property tax (a factor the state considers as it calculates school aid). This structure causes difficulty in getting budgets approved as communities’ object to the assessments, feeling that they are asked to shoulder a disproportionate load of the tax burden. In fact, this is borne out by an analysis from an independent researcher which shows the significant disparity between contributions from communities within a district.

Unlike in other states, Massachusetts school districts do not have the power to tax and that capability is controlled by their underlying municipalities. These arrangements promote conflict between communities in the same district and between the communities and their district as each dollar going to the regional schools means a dollar less for other local services. The task of budget approval can be problematic when in larger districts (say five or more towns) the regional schools must get approval from town meetings and two-thirds or more communities must agree for the budget to be adopted. Oddly the budget approval process leaves the one-person once-vote rule behind.

As demographics change these trends are intensified. Over the decade ending with the 2015-2016 school year overall enrollment in Massachusetts public schools declined by 1.6 percent yet the numbers for the 58 academic regional districts showed declines by 10.5 percent. This is a consequence of demographics and the availability of alternatives for parents to choose for their children’s education such as vocational-technical schools and charter schools. With declining enrollment comes stagnant state aid and additional fiscal constraints resulting in a lessening of the robustness of curriculum and instruction. Smaller districts mean fixed costs eat up a larger share of the already stressed regional district budgets. All this occurs within the context of the difficult trade-off between local control and the efficiency of the regional form. The reliance on structures that concentrate authority at the level of the city or town militates against the use of regional districts that have authority over budgets and school operations. The complexities multiply as the districts add more towns.

Within and outside of New England states deal with these issues in diverse ways. Vermont is during a bold “carrot and stick” approach to further regionalization where incentives exist for a period before regionalization might be compelled by state authorities. Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states have had structures in place where the regional schools are distinct municipal entities with the power to tax and spend, subject to restrictions, but without the need for municipal approval of budgets. Trying to find the balance between local control, political accountability, efficiency of operation and adequate funding is difficult. The external environment through population changes, state support and allowable legal structures complicate the decisions. As communities examine the possibilities of further regionalization in Massachusetts they must examine the issue with an eye toward the possible outcomes from institutional arrangements.

Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya is the Director of the Division of Local Mandates in the Office of Massachusetts State Auditor Suzanne Bump. He is an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University and former local elected official. Ben is a former academic program director at Walden University. He can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @policyben .

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