As the Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School District continues to struggle with enrollment issues, it has received a state grant to study the makeup of its regional membership, and the feasibility of adding or removing communities.
After receiving the $50,000 grant from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Lexington-based district formed a subcommittee to study the 43-year-old agreement with its 16 member communities, and hired the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools to help lead school officials through the process.
“The district, as it is, is not sustainable,’’ said Superintendent Edward Bouquillon. “The 16 towns don’t send us enough kids to keep this a viable school. We need to study the fiscal and legal ramifications of changing the agreement.’’
The first meeting of the subcommittee is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday in the Paul Revere Room at Minuteman High School, 758 Marrett Road in Lexington.
The district comprises Acton, Arlington, Belmont, Bolton, Boxborough, Carlisle, Concord, Dover, Lancaster, Lexington, Lincoln, Needham, Stow, Sudbury, Wayland, and Weston. But of the 650 students attending the vocational technical high school this year, about 250, or 40 percent, are residents of communities outside of the district. About 100 of them are from Medford, Waltham, and Watertown.
School officials said one problem is that the state caps the amount of tuition the district can charge the home communities of its out-of-district students, and the maximum charge is not enough to cover the full cost of educating them. As a result, the member towns end up absorbing that cost, they said.
Another problem, said Bouquillon, is the funding structure for capital projects. Under state law, nonmember municipalities cannot be charged a capital assessment to help cover the costs of improvements to the facility, despite the substantial number of outside students.
Also, several member towns send a small number of students to Minuteman, and therefore question the financial and legal aspects of remaining in the district under the current regional agreement.
Bouqilllon said the study will look at whether the existing district makes sense, and whether there are some communities that want to get out and others that want to join Minuteman, as well as how capital projects will be funded and how communities will be represented on the regional school board. Currently, there is one member for each community, no matter the size of the municipality or the number of students it enrolls at the school.
Bouquillon said that without a change in the agreement, there is no way a planned building project will move forward, because the member communities cannot agree on a funding formula.
Steve Hemman, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools, said his organization can help districts navigate the legal process involved in changing an agreement. He said staff will work with the school and the subcommittee to review the agreement, survey communities, and make recommendations.
“We’re an outside, neutral party trying to present the facts, so the towns can make informed decisions,’’ he Hemman said.
Kemon Taschiotlou, Lincoln’s representative on the Minuteman School Committee, said that getting outside help on the legal issues involved in changing the agreement is a positive step forward.
“I think it’s a fantastic idea,’’ Taschiotlou said.
Something needs to be done soon, he said, noting that for towns sending only a few students to Minuteman, it might be more cost effective to leave the regional district and pay for the students on a tuition basis.
“What I’d like to see is a situation where there is a way to distribute the costs equitably, and for towns to be given the choice of being able to stay in or leave,’’ he said.
J.C. Considine, spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the grant is designed to encourage regionalization and expand collaborative services.
In Minuteman’s case, the school has consistently served a high number of students from nonmember communities. “The department has encouraged Minuteman to explore the possibility of adding these nonmembers to its membership,’’ Considine said of Medford, Waltham, and Watertown.
Bouquillon said the district must use the grant by the end of June. It will then spend the next year working on potential changes to the agreement, which could be voted on by the district’s members in 2014.Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@ yahoo.com.