Berkshire Hills joins Pittsfield push to fix state's 'archaic' school funding formula
GREAT BARRINGTON — It is "archaic." It straps taxpayers. It threatens the quality of education.
This is how, so far, two Berkshire County school districts say they see the state's formula for calculating the minimum amount a community has to pay for its schools.
And the districts say that by not fixing it this last budget season, the state Legislature violated the public trust.
Encouraged by the Pittsfield Public Schools, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee voted unanimously last week in favor of signing a resolution asking the county's legislative delegation to revise that formula, known as the "foundation budget," and make this its "top priority for [fiscal] 2020."
The resolution uses some hard language as it points to the Legislature's failure in July to pass a bill that would have changed the formula for 2019, saying lawmakers have "violated the public trust."
"This inaction constitutes a failure to recognize the ever greater financial pressure on all communities such as our member towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, which jeopardizes the quality and comprehensiveness of the district's educational programming, through the continuation of an outdated and underfunded foundation budget formula and inadequate Chapter 70 funding," the resolution reads, referring to the state's program for disbursing education and school transportation money.
The foundation budget is increasingly coming under attack statewide — especially in poor communities — for its 25-year-old formula that no longer accounts for a number of factors that include rising insurance costs and the true price of educating certain types of students.
The formula calculates a school district's demographics and a town's tax revenue, for instance, to come up with a minimum legal amount that town must pay for its schools.
But this does not always adjust to reality, school officials argue.
"Great Barrington, like other communities, is funny because we don't fit into an obvious box," said Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon. "There are the wealthy, those that are struggling and those in the middle."
The bill to revise the foundation budget failed when the state House of Representatives and Senate could not come to an agreement about measures that might have increased insurance and special education spending, as well as spending on low-income and English-language learners.
The bill's derailment has frustrated, even angered, local school officials, who are trying to keep up with costs within a rural economy and diminishing student populations.
"The [school] committee deplores the failure of the General Court ... to revise the foundation budget," reads the Pittsfield Public Schools' resolution, also unanimously approved by its School Committee.
Pittsfield School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon wrote to her counterpart at Berkshire Hills, Stephen Bannon, as well as every school committee chairperson in the county, that is is time to wage a countywide campaign for reform.
"We believe that a united outcry from the Berkshires can be very powerful," Yon wrote, also suggesting that Pittsfield's resolution could be used as a template.
Yon, who with Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless gave testimony at the Statehouse in support of the bill, told The Eagle that she isn't sure if other school committees had also voted on resolutions.
She said that so far, she had received a positive response from Sen. Adam Hinds D-Pittsfield regarding the Aug. 21 letter.
"It's all about equity," she said. "To educate students whether in a rich community or a poor community."
But school officials aren't the only ones trying to solve money shortages.
"There was a commitment with the House and the Senate to try to reach an accord and we couldn't do it," state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli told The Eagle.
The Lenox Democrat said there was a hang-up over health insurance, among other things, that squashed the bill. But Pignatelli cautioned against pointing fingers only at lawmakers. Pignatelli said local officials are also responsible.
"There's a lot of local control in school budgets," he said.
But he also agrees that the foundation budget could use an overhaul.
"There's no question about it," he said. "The formula is seriously flawed."
Pignatelli said that with "legitimate reform" comes winners and losers, and he asked where the money to increase the necessary school spending would come from, especially since a hoped-for source of new revenue, dangled before the state, fell apart in a court ruling.
Thinking it would be flush with another roughly $2 billion annually from an expected "millionaire's tax," state lawmakers had thought these education increases would be covered, Pignatelli said. But the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in June that a surtax on the wealthy couldn't go on the November ballot.
"It threw everybody's financial planning out of whack," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, of the SJC ruling.
The problems schools have with the foundation budget appear to be the same sticking points that hung the bill up in the Legislature.
"It does not accurately count the real number of students that are economically disadvantaged, and it does not accurately reimburse districts for the fair cost of dealing with students who are English-language learners, and it doesn't include the cost of retiree health insurance," Koocher said. "These were not issues in 1993."
Dillon hinted that the state might be shortsighted by not tackling the formula more aggressively.
"Money invested early in education increases economic development, but also saves a lot of money investing [from] remediating, correcting or punishing," he said, noting that there is plenty of research out there on this point.
And Dillon further said that money has been found to make other things happen — it all depends on priorities.
"When Boston was trying to get GE to come to Boston from Fairfield County, [Connecticut], a whole set of things were done to make that attractive," he said, referring to incentives by the city to woo General Electric, so it would relocate its headquarters there.
Koocher said all is not lost — that for a host of reasons and timing, the matter got punted to next year. But the fight will continue.
"It's not a disaster; it's just a delay," he said. "[But] it would be a long-term disaster if this doesn't get resolved."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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