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2 districts buck trend of merging schools

In Abington, class sizes have grown as the district has lost 72 staff members in the last two years. In Abington, class sizes have grown as the district has lost 72 staff members in the last two years. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2009)
By Constance Lindner
Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2011

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At least 10 public school systems in Massachusetts have decided to regionalize — or fully combine their resources with others — within the past year, but Abington and Holbrook are bucking the trend.

That’s because no matter how the numbers are arranged, they don’t add up in a way that warrants combining the two districts, according to the findings of a committee appointed to consider the option.

“Financially, there isn’t substantial savings in consolidation, with initial start-up costs and operational costs potentially quite large,’’ said Abington School Superintendent Peter Schafer, who served on the nine-member Regionalization Study Committee that included Holbrook School Superintendent Joseph Baeta.

Ayer and Shirley, Lakeville and Freetown, Chatham and Harwich, and Berkeley and Somerset have all decided to regionalize within the past year, which also saw a three-part merger: North Shore Regional Vocational District, Essex Agricultural and Technical High School, and Peabody. With the exception of Chatham and Harwich, most of the systems were already involved in some sharing of educational resources. Chatham and Harwich have visited the issue a number of times over the past five decades.

Jonathan Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that the problems, concerns, and benefits involved in regionalization are the same for all communities. But the involvement of an estimated $2.1 million of combined salary, health insurance, and transportation costs seemed too great for Abington and Holbrook, officials said.

“We’re in severe budgetary constraints, but our task was to discuss regionalizing, which is very different from regional planning involving a town meeting, a number cruncher to consider spending money,’’ said Baeta. “And I’m not sure that either community is willing to spend that money while we’re laying off people.’’

Holbrook laid off 26 teachers and paraprofessionals, and Abington let 72 school staff members go in the past two fiscal years.

This is not the first time that regionalization has been broached between the neighboring towns. Sporadic discussions date back to 1992.

The latest effort was spurred by the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s response to Holbrook’s proposed K-12 Educational Complex, composed of separate buildings for prekindergarten through Grade 5 and grades 6 to 12. Holbrook was asked by the state agency to demonstrate that regionalization had been considered before continuing with its proposal.

Abington has also been hoping for a new middle school, though plans are now on hold due to the economy.

The Regionalization Study Committee’s findings belie the recent trend of regionalization.

“This has been a banner year, with five districts coming together already in 2010,’’ said Considine.

The upsurge is partly due to the dwindling population in smaller school districts that makes it increasingly difficult to support the individual school systems, Considine said.

Across the state, there are 92 communities involved in regionalization, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. And a recent report by the department shows a decline in public school student enrollment, from 980,000 in 2004 to 959,000 by 2009.

Constance Lindner can be reached at cl0734@gmail.com.