School Supts. Make Case at FSU Forum
FITCHBURG -- Revamping the state’s formula to fund public schools would address inequity across districts, superintendents from across the region said at a Tuesday forum.
“They’re all our kids and we want to provide the best possible education for them,” said Bob Jokela, acting superintendent of Fitchburg Public Schools.
School, municipal, and state leaders gathered at Fitchburg State University to advocate for changes to how the state funds education.
Eleven superintendents and school staff -- including those from Worcester, Gardner, and Framingham -- spoke on a panel about how the funding formula has affected their districts.
Leominster Superintendent Paula Deacon said the formula is “decades behind reality.” Cities and towns have had to pick up costs and things have come to a breaking point, she said.
Under the current system -- which hasn’t been updated since 1993 -- the cost of an adequate education is called the foundation budget. The state calculates how much municipalities are required to contribute and the rest is funded through Chapter 70 aid, which has declined over the years.
Communities can contribute more than the requirement, leading to disparities in how much they spend per student.
Special education and health insurance are two areas where districts have had to pay more.
Leominster’s foundation budget for special education was $6.7 million, but it actually spent $15.7 million -- a $12.7 million gap.
In Fitchburg, the city spent $11.8 million on special education, which was about $5.7 million more than the foundation budget determined.
Jokela said money that could have gone to instructional materials and computers had to be funded by school choice and grants because the district needed to use that money elsewhere.
For Fitchburg, services for English language learners and school building maintenance are other areas the district has spent money, he said.
Superintendents from the panel echoed similar challenges and trends with spending.
“The formula says -- that’s the important line -- I should have (this many) teachers, but I’m dealing with reality in Ashburnham,” said Ellen Holmes, a member of the Ashburnham-Westminster School Committee. “We need more, but the reality is we can’t have that.”
She talked about how her sons, who are on the autism spectrum, received support when they went to school in the district in the late 1990s. They went on to attend college and graduate school.
Holmes said she is thankful those services were available and that they should be now.
The gap between how much the cities and towns represented on the panel spent on special education and health insurance and what their foundation budgets for those areas was a total of $173.7 million for Fiscal Year 2017, according to numbers presented at the forum.
State lawmakers have been looking at ways to address inequities in education funding. The Foundation Budget Review Commission found that the formula underestimated costs in four main areas: education for low-income students, for English language learners, special education, and heath insurance.
If the FBRC recommendations were implemented, Fitchburg could have received between $4 million and $12.8 million more in state aid. For Leominster, it could have been an increase between $3.1 million and 7.3 million.
School budgets for the communities on the panel could have had a combined increase of $117.4 million if the recommendations were put in place. Statewide, the increases for schools would have been $1.1 billion.
Bills that sought to fund areas identified by the FBRC and give more money to school districts didn’t pass during the previous legislative session.
Rep. Jon Zlotnik, a Gardner Democrat, said last session was the first time he has seen bills addressing school funding changes come to the floor. The biggest issue with passing them seemed to be timing.
“Certainly it’s disappointing, but we shouldn’t look at the failure of that bill to mean that the support is not there or that we don’t have a reason to be optimistic or hopeful with the new legislative session,” he said.
Moving forward, school officials said it’s important to spread information and to get schools, municipal leaders, and the public to organize. More events through the coalition of school districts are expected, especially closer to budget season and when votes are taking on education funding legislation.
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