Patrick plan in peril?

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These are just a few of Gov. Deval L. Patrick's ambitious goals for education reform over the next decade that will undoubtedly carry a hefty price tag once the governor's task force finishes pricing out the wish-list.

As the Patrick administration prepares for what could be deep budget cuts next month forced by the struggling economy and turmoil on Wall Street, his administration is pushing forward with the governor's Readiness Project and all of its reforms.

"We're not backing off anything because of the fiscal problems we face right now," one top adviser to Patrick told The Eagle.

The Readiness Project also includes a number of potential cost savers such as regionalization of small, suburban districts to avoid duplication in administrative costs.

Education Secretary Paul Reville said regionalization is at the top of his priority list and decisions will have to made fast to save money for cities and towns to be used in other areas of need.

Schools making sacrifices

"Some school districts are going to have to sacrifice autonomy in order to save jobs and help their students," Reville said following a public hearing on the 2010 budget in Roxbury.

The administration's unwavering stand in the face of potentially dire economic times, of course, comes with a caveat.

The Readiness Project, unveiled by the Patrick administration this summer, laid out a 10-year blueprint for education reform giving the governor the flexibility to delay some of the more expensive proposals until years from now when surpluses could again be the norm.

A task force charged with costing out each of the 55 proposals in the Readiness Project and coming up with short- and long-term strategies for paying for those programs is due to make its final report sometime this November.

"It feels like a tsunami. Our backs are against the wall," Reville said.

Until the final report, Reville said the focus will be on finding efficiencies and cost savings within the current system. However, he has not ruled out in past comments of "going to the taxpayers" to fund programs that are necessary.

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'The middle class has been decimated'

State Rep. Kevin Murphy, chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education, said he has not been told of any new direction by the administration. He warned, however, that now is not the time to be pushing a big-ticket agenda.

"Do you know how much money people have lost in their mutual funds and 401k in the past two weeks?" said Murphy, D-Lowell. "The middle class has been decimated. What are we going to do, say we're going to fund free community college and then up everyone's taxes?"

Reville kicked off a series of regional budget meetings last night, during which he and the state's top education officials discussed how the 2010 budget will be crafted and how each agency within the Executive Office of Education will work together.

He said next year would prove to be a "challenging budget process." The panel included Reville, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, acting Early Education Commissioner Amy Kershaw, acting Higher Education Commissioner Aundrea Kelley, and UMass finance chief Steve Lenhardt.

Kershaw said she hoped to see a continued expansion of money for pre-kindergarten programs, and Kelley said free community college tuition was at the top of her priorities.

'We're trying to work with districts'

New revenues along with cost savings both will be part of the overall strategy in implementing Readiness reforms, but officials said any discussion of asking the public for new taxes is a long way off.

"We're not asking anyone to do anything that we won't do ourselves.

We're trying to work with school districts to find out how we can do business better; how can we better spend our money," Palumbo said.

"Until we get our house in order, I don't think it's fair to even broach that topic."

Eagle Boston Bureau reporter Lyle Moran contributed to this report.


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