EVERETT >> More than one-third of lawmakers have requested that House and Senate leaders increase by more than $20 million local education aid beyond what had been proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker in his budget for next year, joining with local leaders who pressed budget writers on Monday to increase school aid to their communities despite the administration contention that "difficult" choices must be made in a lean budget year.
The $39.55 billion fiscal 2017 budget proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker includes a $72.1 million increase in Chapter 70 local education funding, representing a 1.6 percent increase over the current year. During a hearing before the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees at Everett High School, municipal and education leaders said that sum was not enough to maintain their programs and implored the lawmakers to bump up the funding in their versions of the budget.
"It does seem to me that when anticipated state revenues are going to rise by more than 4 percent, to increase Chapter 70, your major public education line item account, by a mere 1.6 percent, that's woefully inadequate," Chelsea City Manager Thomas Ambrosino said. "This is the core function of government, and it seems to me more resources have to be put toward it."
The testimony came after a bipartisan group of 74 House and Senate lawmakers sent a letter last week to Ways and Means chairs Rep. Brian Dempsey and Sen. Karen Spilka asking for the increase in minimum aid for school districts to climb from the $20 per pupil proposed by Baker to $50 per pupil. The change would amount to a $20.2 million increase in funding above the governor's budget recommendation, according to the lawmakers.
"Our school districts face rising expenses every year just to maintain existing services. Most of these cost drivers, including energy and health care rates, contractual obligations and testing mandates, are beyond the control of local districts," read the letter provided to the News Service by Rep. Josh Cutler, of Duxbury. "Yet for the two hundred plus districts that would receive just the minimum aid increment in House 2, the Chapter 70 allotment increases by an average of less than one percent."
In his testimony, Education Secretary James Peyser told the committee that the Baker administration made changes to the formula used to establish Chapter 70 funding, which, if left unaltered, "would have required very little additional spending" because of a negative inflation rate and a drop in student population.
Peyser said the approximately $72 million in increased education aid includes about $13 million that comes from a minimum aid requirement of $20 per pupil across the state; about $25 million to help more districts reach their target aid level; $23 million in assistances for communities with higher concentrations of poverty; and $11 million from a rate increase for low-income students in response to a calculation change resulting in fewer students classifying as low-income.
"FY '17 is shaping up to be a tough fiscal year that required some difficult choices, and I'm sure we will not agree on each and every choice," Peyser said. "But I want to assure the committee that this administration stands ready to work with you to develop a responsible, fair and strategic budget that serves all students of the commonwealth and sustains our collective efforts to build a truly world-class system of public education."
Under the governor's budget, Brockton schools would see their local aid go up by 0.2 percent next year as costs rise, Superintendent Kathleen Smith told the committee.
"I hear all about STEM. I hear all about MCAS 2.0, and we're trying to do that, but when I keep having to cut the technology budget by millions of dollars every year to keep teachers in the classroom, I don't have the money for curriculum and our class sizes are approaching 35," Smith said. "There's nowhere else to go, so we are very, very dependent on support from the state, and this is just irresponsible as far as the Chapter 70 goes."
Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria asked the lawmakers visiting his city to consider bringing the amount up higher to $100 per pupil. DeMaria said that 77 percent of the state's school districts receive only minimum aid and will therefore see their funding increase by no more than $20 per student next year.
"For many districts, this would represent another in a long series of years of receiving only minimum aid, which has forced a growing reliance on property tax to fund schools," DeMaria said. Increasing the per-pupil aid amount to $100 would add almost $55.9 million to Baker's budget proposal for Chapter 70, lawmakers estimated.
Peyser said it was "not surprising" to hear that legislators were requesting an increase in the minimum aid.
"It's typical that the administration will put forward a number and the Legislature will increase it," he said.
The $20 increment reflects both a need to "operate within the overall constraints of the budget" and an interest in honoring the nature of the formula that determines total aid amounts for districts and schools, Peyser said.
"The formula is intended to be progressive so that lower-income, higher-need communities get relatively more money than the higher-income, lower-need communities," he told the News Service. "Minimum aid means everybody's getting the same amount of money regardless of their circumstances, so you don't want to overdo that because then it can have the result of skewing the distribution."