Under Baker school plan, significant new aid to a small number of communities






Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal to tackle the state’s school funding woes would funnel notable increases in state aid next year to several cities, but it would offer little financial relief to most other systems, many struggling under the state’s property tax cap, according to a Globe review.

The divide is the result of a specific goal of the funding proposal: providing more resources to urban districts facing a dire urgency to improve student achievement. More than half of the $200 million increase that Baker is proposing would go to almost a dozen cities: Lynn, Worcester, New Bedford, Springfield, Lawrence, Everett, Fall River, Holyoke, Lowell, Lawrence, and Brockton.

That, however, doesn’t leave much for the rest of the state’s more than 300 other districts. Consequently, more than 150 of them would wind up with increases of 1 percent or less, the Globe review found.

That list includes Boston, which serves the largest number of black, Latino, low-income, and immigrant students in the state, as well as many bedroom communities with tiny commercial tax bases, such as Pembroke and Reading, and several sprawling regional school districts in Western Massachusetts, where spending in many cases has been cut to the bone and student achievement is suffering.

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The lack of significant increases for so many districts could signal trouble ahead for Baker’s proposal, Beacon Hill observers say. Many legislators, they say, may be reluctant to support a measure that brings little relief to their constituents, many of whom are frustrated with rising property taxes to pay for education while grappling with mortgages in a state with one of the most expensive housing stocks n the nation.

“There are a lot of districts that . . . believe the funding formula is broken and they are being left behind,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

In Medford, where nearly a third of its 4,300 students live in poverty, the city would receive only a $92,000 increase in state aid, raising the total to $12 million. But the amount of aid going to cover charter school tuition will climb from $5.1 million this year to $5.9 million next year, taking all the district’s aid increase and then some.

“I don’t know where we will make up that money,” said Medford Mayor Stephanie Burke.

Much hoopla has surrounded Baker’s proposal, which would devote $5.1 billion to general education aid, known as Chapter 70, a 4 percent increase over this year. Aid is doled out on a per-student basis under a formula that weighs a community’s ability to pay and the educational needs of its students.

Baker’s proposal would also expand the power of state education leaders to intervene in struggling schools, such as withholding state aid when schools don’t improve.

James Peyser, the state’s education secretary, defended the governor’s proposal, noting it provides millions of additional dollars toward rising health care costs and programs that serve students living in poverty or those with a disability or language barrier.

In addition to increasing funding for Chapter 70, the proposal would also provide more than $70 million to help school systems fund efforts to improve student achievement.

“We want to make sure the resources go to the communities and schools that need it the most,” Peyser said.

He said many districts are getting small increases for a variety of reasons, such as declining enrollment or because they qualify only for minimum aid. He noted the state just completed a 10-year process of ensuring all districts have at least 17.5 percent of the required costs under the state’s funding formula covered by aid.

Already, Baker is facing growing competition from a bill by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, that has more than 100 co-sponsors. That bill calls for a five-year phase-in of the recommendations of a legislative commission that found the state is underfunding education by more than $1 billion. (Baker’s bill would do it over seven years.)

The bill would also pump additional aid into school systems that lose most of their state funding to cover charter school tuition, a provision that could cost tens of millions of dollars.

“The fanfare and attention [around Baker’s bill] has been high compared to the actual increase in funding,” said Colin Jones, senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan research nonprofit. “It’s not as ambitious as other proposals out there.”

Baker’s proposed increase, he added, is not substantially higher than this year’s increase, $161 million.

Edward Lambert, president of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, applauded Baker’s proposal for prioritizing high-need districts. But he added that his organization is not opposed to a larger spending proposal that would benefit more districts “as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of the most vulnerable students.”

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said all school systems statewide are feeling financial pressure, causing even well-to-do systems to cut spending or put off initiatives. “The governor’s numbers are not nearly enough,” she said. “Everyone deserves something.”

The highest percentage increase under Baker’s proposal would go to the Berlin-Boylston Public Schools in Worcester County, recording a nearly 90 percent jump in aid valued at $1 million.

But a closer analysis reveals the increase is more of an accounting issue due to a district consolidation. Starting next summer, Berlin-Boylston, which has long operated only a middle-high school, will absorb the two independent elementary school districts in each town — including their state aid — making it appear on paper the regional district is getting a big bump in aid.

“That is not a real increase,” said Robert Conry, the system’s director of finance and operations. “We would love it if it was.”

In fact, next year’s aid is relatively flat compared to what the three separate systems received this year.

Boston City Council President Andrea Campbell said Baker’s bill doesn’t do enough to help Boston. The city will see only a 0.6 percent increase in aid, or $1.3 million, bringing the total to $221 million. But most will go to charter schools, leaving the city to fund almost all of the system’s more than $1 billion budget. The state funding formula penalizes Boston because its tax base is so huge, valued at more than $160 billion.

Brockton, which has been contemplating a lawsuit over school funding, said its nearly $5 million aid increase, 2.8 percent, is “a good start.”

“We hope that the House and Senate can add to this so that we can begin to rebuild all that has been severely cut over the past four years, especially our teaching staff and student supports,” said Aldo Petronio, the school system’s chief budget officer.

Springfield would receive a 5 percent increase, $17 million. Patrick Roach, chief financial and operating officer for Springfield schools, said the increase helps, but the system will still struggle financially due to rapidly rising costs, such as retirement obligations that are projected to go up 8.5 percent.

Consequently, as officials try to assemble a balanced budget for next year they will need to cut $2 million in spending. That is better than previous years when officials typically chopped $10 million, he said, but officials would prefer to expand programs, such as tutoring, music and art in the lower grades, and before and afterschool programs, as well as hire more teachers.

State aid covers about 90 percent of its $500 million budget.

“When the governor came out with his budget, everybody who read the press release thought we would have a windfall of cash, but we don’t,” Roach said.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.



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