The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Superintendency Unions-Authorization to Commissioner to Update Policies and Procedures

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
October 10, 2014

Superintendency unions (sometimes called "school unions") are cooperative arrangements between two or more school committees (typically in small towns) to share the services of a superintendent of schools and central office staff, while allowing each town to keep its own school committee and school buildings. The law authorizing school unions was enacted in 1870, predating the law authorizing regional school districts, which was enacted in 1949.

The statutes1 governing superintendency unions provide the vehicle for the school committees of individual towns to share a superintendent. A joint school committee, composed of representatives from each local elected school committee, is created for the limited purposes of hiring and evaluating a single superintendent and other central office staff. School unions have no independent financial authority, and every salary and expense of the shared central office is covered by separate payments from each town. In contrast to the regional school district structure, now used by 84 regional school districts around the Commonwealth, the school union structure is a limited measure that allows local school committees to continue to make independent budget, personnel and educational program decisions while sharing central office staff and resources.

There are currently 16 school unions encompassing 49 municipal elementary school districts. The majority of these 49 districts share their superintendent and central office staff with the regional school district that serves their towns at the secondary level. The typical school union consists of two to four districts that serve elementary students whose secondary students are served by a regional school district, serving the same towns. Elementary districts participating in school unions tend to have a small student enrollment, averaging about 400 students. The smallest union is comprised of three towns with a combined enrollment of fewer than 300 students; the largest is comprised of two elementary districts with a combined enrollment of just over 3,000 students. Sixteen superintendents serve the 49 elementary districts as well as 15 regional school districts with a combined enrollment of just over 32,500 students.

Sharing the costs of administrative personnel among multiple school districts creates efficiencies that in turn can provide additional resources for the classroom or for other school district priorities. Many small districts find it increasingly difficult to afford adequate central office staff to handle various duties. In many small districts, one person is responsible for multiple areas, making it difficult to develop in-depth expertise. Small districts may also find it difficult to match the higher salary levels offered by larger districts, leading to a continual loss of skilled personnel at all levels, including the superintendent. By pooling the resources of two or more districts, a school union can provide the critical mass to fully staff a central office and allow the districts to offer more competitive salaries, while providing savings to school districts through economies of scale.

Under M.G.L. c. 71, § 61, the dissolution of a school union requires approval by the Department. In 1983 the Board issued guidelines for this purpose, called a Policy on the Dissolution of a School Union. While the guidelines are called a "policy," the issues related to the formation, reorganization, or dissolution of school unions are about administrative procedures rather than educational policy. These guidelines are in need of updating, to incorporate subsequent statutory amendments and to respond to questions received from the field.

Because this is an administrative function, rather than a policymaking function, I recommend that the Board exercise its delegation authority as set forth in M.G.L. c. 15, §1F, paragraph 3:

The board may delegate its authority or any portion thereof to the commissioner whenever in its judgment such delegation may be necessary or desirable. The commissioner shall exercise such delegated powers and duties with the full authority of the board.

The enclosed motion delegates to the Commissioner the authority to issue and update guidelines and administrative procedures on the formation, reorganization, or dissolution of superintendency unions. The Department will conduct outreach to stakeholder groups for information and comment before finalizing the updated guidelines, and I will send the final document to the Board for your information.

Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson and Director of School Governance Christine Lynch will be at the Board meeting on October 21 to answer your questions.

Enclosure: Motion