Education secretary hears about rural school challenges

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 05-09-2023 4:05 PM

NORTHFIELD — In the Pioneer Valley Regional School library and on the trails behind the building, Massachusetts Secretary of Education Patrick Tutwiler got a lesson in rural education.

Tutwiler, along with two assistant secretaries and his communications staff, spent Monday afternoon with Pioneer students, staff, administrators and public officials, as he learned about the challenges faced by rural school districts.

“The incredible pride the students conveyed about their experience says a lot about the commitment to education here — the skill sets of the faculty and staff here,” he said in an interview. “I’m leaving inspired.”

It was the secretary of education’s first visit to western Massachusetts in at least a decade, according to Kristen Elechko, whom Gov. Maura Healey recently tapped as this region’s director. Tutwiler oversees the state’s early, primary and higher education.

Tutwiler had lunch with students and talked to them about the importance of rural education and the district’s needs. The conversation then opened up to all in attendance, where state Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, spoke about how the state’s funding formula can sometimes leave rural communities behind, even if those communities, especially those around the Quabbin Reservoir, contribute so many resources to the state.

“Mr. Secretary, never in the history of your career, nor mine, will anybody ever come up to me and say, ‘You’re giving me too much money,’” Whipps said, noting some funding formulas don’t take state-owned property, such as the Quabbin, into account. “We do make a significant contribution, but you can’t tax the trees.”

After the meal, students, science teacher Nikki Pullen and restoration ecologist John Lepore, who is also a former Pioneer faculty member, took Tutwiler and the other public officials on a tour of the school’s recently restored hiking trail to give them a taste of rural, in-place education.

The event at Pioneer was the final stop on a day full of meetings with educators, school administrators and students that began with a breakfast town hall with the Collaborative for Educational Services, legislators and 35 superintendents from around the Pioneer Valley. Following the breakfast, Tutwiler made his way to the Bridge Street School in Northampton before spending time in Northfield.

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Tutwiler’s visit comes just under a year after a Special Commission on Rural School Districts report called for a major funding increase of at least $60 million for rural school districts, money its members say is needed to address issues with transportation, declining enrollment, and costs related to School Choice and special education. He said the Healey-Driscoll administration is taking those considerations seriously, citing the initial $2 million bump in rural school aid — now up to $7.5 million — that has been implemented in Healey’s first budget since taking office.

“You should see and take the governor’s commitment to addressing the issues by what was done in the budget,” Tutwiler said. “That reflects a real commitment to addressing the issues that are uniquely felt by these communities. … It’s a process.”

After the event, state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, who attended the breakfast town hall with superintendents, said Tutwiler heard honest feedback from rural school leaders. Among those who spoke were Gateway Regional School District Superintendent Kristen Smidy, Greenfield School Department Superintendent Christine Debarge, and Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts Superintendent Sheryl Stanton, according to a schedule shared by the Collaborative for Educational Services.

“He heard hard things,” Comerford said about the conversations taking place, noting the breakfast was closed to the press so the superintendents could share their feelings.

Comerford said Tutwiler and the Healey-Driscoll administration are showing their commitment to education in the state, which is especially helpful in a time when budgets are tight everywhere.

“There isn’t a school district that isn’t hurting,” Comerford said. “He spent the entire day here. … That’s a big investment.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.

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