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Lawmakers hear from Cape Cod educators on funding

Date Published: May 14, 2019

Author: Cynthia McCormick

HYANNIS — The charts and data a group of state senators brought to a listening session last week with Cape Cod educators showed school officials what they already experience on a daily basis.

The state’s school funding formula — the Chapter 70 program that was considered so innovative in 1993 — no longer meets the needs of school districts struggling to pay for special education, English language instruction and employee health care insurance.

“The formula has fallen out of date,” said state Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, chairman of the Joint Committee on Education. “It hasn’t kept up with actual costs.”

State Sens. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, who is also a member of the Joint Committee on Education, and Viriato “Vinny” deMacedo, R-Plymouth, joined Lewis for the Friday afternoon meeting with more than two dozen people at Barnstable High School.

“The English language learner factor is what is most profoundly off” in the funding formula, Monomoy Regional School District Superintendent Scott Carpenter told the lawmakers.

There were few students whose native language was something other than English when he first arrived in Chatham and Harwich six years ago, Carpenter said. But next year, one in three kindergartners at Chatham Elementary School will be an English language learner, he said.

Lewis displayed a chart that showed how the state budget underfunds the actual cost of employee benefits and special education teachers by millions of dollars. He talked about how the Legislature this spring is considering three proposals that would pump millions of dollars into school aid.

The proposals range from Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan to increase education funding by $600 million over several years to the Promise Act supported by the Massachusetts Teachers Association that would infuse schools with up to an additional $2 billion.

“The governor’s proposal is modest,” said Cyr, the Cape’s only representative on the Joint Committee on Education. “It probably doesn’t get us where we need” to be, he said.

“No one’s opposed to education funding reform,” Lewis said. “Now we are just working to achieve consensus.”

The question is how much money the state should invest in raising the foundation budget for school districts.

The goal of Chapter 70 was to improve educational equity by determining an adequate funding level, or foundation budget, for each school district in the state every year.

Looking at property values and local income, the state calculates how much each district can afford to raise on its own and how much the state needs to contribute to meet the foundation budget.

In some very poor districts, such as Lawrence, the local contribution comes to less than 10 percent. But even wealthier districts contribute no more than 82.5 percent in local aid to the foundation budget. The state makes up the rest.

The problem is that the foundation budget no longer represents the true cost of educating students, Lewis and Cyr said.

Consequently, school districts have taken it upon themselves to add funds beyond the foundation budget. Those amounts vary greatly, according to the wealth of the district.

A chart presented by Lewis and Cyr shows that Chelsea contributes an additional $747 per pupil beyond its foundation budget of $12,260 per pupil.

On the other hand, more well-to-do Watertown contributes an extra $8,909 over the foundation budget for a total of $19,789 per pupil, according to information from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

The opportunity to update the funding formula presents a historic opportunity to bring about more equitable funding of public schools, Lewis said.

The main source of new funding would come through the passage of the Fair Share Amendment, also known as the Millionaire’s Tax, which is expected to be on the November 2022 ballot, he said.

DeMacedo said he understands the need to address shortfalls in education funding, but is worried the passage of a Fair Share Amendment would discourage employers from doing business in the Bay State.

“My fear is they will leave the Commonwealth,” deMacedo said. “That’s what happened in Connecticut. The same thing happened in New Jersey.”

It’s important to consider how to help schools ameliorate some of the other pressures education officials talked about Friday, deMacedo said, including the financial effect of charter schools and the cost of hiring more school adjustment counselors and psychologists to address the mental health and behavioral needs of students.

Lewis, who has visited other parts of the state to talk to education officials, said there is an urgent need to update the funding formula.

“We want to be able to get a bill done soon,” Lewis said. “We don’t want to wait another year.”

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