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Massachusetts schools need more funds, some point to flaw in education finance law

Jill Kaufman
/
NEPM

"This is a really lousy year," said Tracy O’Connell Novick describing what Massachusetts public school districts are going through right now as they plan next year’s budget.

Novick is a specialist on finance and state education funding at the Massachusetts School Committee Association (MASCA).

“Right now, my job is about 60% standing in front of groups saying, ‘your budget is terrible. The state budget is terrible. Here's why it's terrible,’” Novick said.

An alarming number of school districts in the state are struggling to balance their budgets for the coming year, with significant cuts in jobs and academic programs on the table.

Why are so many in this predicament this year as opposed to the past? One hurdle, according to MASCA, one other state school association and the two teacher unions, is how inflation is set in Massachusetts education funding formula known as Chapter 70.

“When I present this to school committees, I usually do it in a session called ‘70 minutes on Chapter 70,’” Novick said as she launched into an abbreviated version.

How budget planning begins

School districts start by establishing a foundation budget, Novick said, based on a number of factors set by the state's finance law — and the foundation budget is just one among several calculations in the mix.

“There's one calculation that happens for every school district in Massachusetts,” Novick said, “which says the number of students you have, the grade they're in, the number of them that are English learners, the number of them that are low income – and then with an assumed percentage of special education students — here is what the state says would be a fair and adequate minimum amount for your school district to spend.”

Then the state calculates what the district's municipality needs to put into the budget, based on revenue from local business and property taxes.

The complex process is taking place right now in most of Massachusetts 318 public school districts, and the complexity is what makes budget planning in Amherst different from Northampton or Pittsfield, for instance. Each has proposed staff cuts.

Across the state, it's been a long time since Novick has seen so many school districts in such a bind, she said

“The thing that I find frustrating is that the last time that we had a budget year like this one for Massachusetts, we didn't have the Student Opportunity Act,” Novick said.

The 2019 finance reform law known as the Student Opportunity Act or SOA came after years of lawmaker deliberation, and when it passedit was widely supported on Beacon Hill, as well as by school districts and teachers unions.

The SOA was described by then Gov. Charlie Baker and now Gov. Maura Healey as an historic investment in public education, intended to funnel additional money into the public education system in a way that would boost every district.

It’s like a trust fund for Massachusetts schools. Under the law, over seven years, the state rolls an additional $1.5 billion into K-12 public education.

The law has had a huge impact in some districts, ones with larger populations of low income students, but less so in rural districts.

But right now, everyone is in a more tough spot than usual, Novick said, and as educators and school committees work on next year's budget, the end of pandemic-era emergency money is in sight.

"Even the districts like Pittsfield and Springfield and Holyokeand so forth, those SOA increases to cover their operating costs, they're not actually going to be able to use them for what they're supposed to be able to use them for, which is meeting the needs of the low income students and meeting the needs of their English learners and so forth, in the ways that the Student Opportunity Act outlines,” Novick said.

A problem with the law?

In Governor Maura Healey’s proposed budget for next year and the House budget, inflation is set at 1.35% — based on a federal measurement, the U.S. Department of Commerce's state and local government price deflator.

But the current math doesn't address districts' rising operating costs Novick said, including things like the rising price of transportation, building repairs, energy and wages.

"Seventy-five to 80% of a school district's budget is staffing and health insurance," Novick said. "I think everyone who's been around public education for any length of time knows we can we can [trim around the edges] as much as possible, but you can only turn down the thermostat so much."

Eventually, the cuts will hit staffing and and nobody likes to see that, Novick said.

Fix the funding flaw

A not common alliance is calling on education officials to fix a calculation in Chapter 70. That group, Novick’s MASCA, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts created a FAQ to explain how inflation of the last two years, between 7% and 8 % is a factor.

"... the [Chapter 70] law caps the annual inflation adjustment of the foundation budget at 4.5 percent," the FAQ said. "As a result, districts did not receive funds to cover a significant portion of inflation that they had to pay for in expenses.”

The way the Chapter 70 formula originally worked, the FAQ said, “that would not be a long-term problem because the lost inflation would automatically be added back into the foundation budget in the following year. But a technical change made almost a decade after the law was passed inadvertently changed that. Now when the cap reduces aid below the level needed to keep pace with inflation, that reduction is locked in forever and reduces future aid.”

“It’s a little bit complicated…”

Massachusetts state Sen. Joanne Comerford, D- Northampton, is also among those calling for changes to the state’s school finance law.

“We want to make sure that the impact [of the SOA through Chapter 70] is not one size fits all, because one size fits all doesn't fit western Mass.,” Comerford said by phone adding, “it’s a little bit complicated to talk about succinctly for radio.”

Comerford said she intends to file legislation to reopen Chapter 70.

“It's not going to say we stop abiding by the Student Opportunity Act, but by 2027 we will finish the rollout… and we must have an answer before then about what we're going to do for these districts that are so vulnerable."

In particular, Massachusetts’ rural districts.

At a recent legislative hearing in Greenfield, state Rep. Natalie Blais, D- Sunderland, addressed top education officials, referencing findings from a 2022 special commission report on rural schools.

“Some rural high schools have cut most of their AP courses, business programs, arts offerings, social studies, electives, and world languages,” she began.

Enrollments in rural schools are declining Blais said, in part because of stagnant population, but also because families are picking other public, charter or private schools. The number of students in a district is a key component to school funding.

Blais challenged Massachusetts Secretary of Education Patrick Tutwileron how the Healey administration will stop what she described as “the self-perpetuating cycle of decline in rural schools.”

Tutwiler pointed to two items in the governor's budget — a tripling of aid to rural schools, and more money than ever assigned to school transportation.

That’s not the end, Tutwiler said.

Also at the hearing, Comerford made an appeal to the secretary, to change the state’s education law.

“Secretary, you said it perfectly [earlier],” Comerford said. “Chapter 70 was not handed down from the Divine. It is an imperfect formula,” adding that she wants to crack open the formula and try to fix it.

I’m willing to follow the legislature on this,” Tutwiler said. “If the legislature has an appetite for a working group, we would be willing partners.”

“Certainly I can’t speak for the legislature,” Comerford said, but called it a “beautiful offer.”

None of this will likely come through in the next few weeks as school districts finalize their budgets.

Earlier this month, Massachusetts House Democrats said they want to use $37 million in surtax dollars as a supplement to K-12 schools, on top of $6.86 billion in Chapter 70 education aid. That would more than double per pupil spending as it was written in the governor's FY 2025 budget.

Reporting from the Statehouse News Service was included in this story.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."

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