Pittsfield city, school officials say state education funding formula 'needs to change'

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PITTSFIELD — City and school leaders are calling on the state to start paying its "fair share" to educate public school students.

With the city's tight financial situation poised to only get tighter in the coming years, some leaders here want community members to advocate for a change to the state's education funding formula, which has seen little change since it was created in 1993.

The comments were part of a discussion prompted by a presentation about the state's education funding formula at City Council Tuesday.

Tracy O'Connell Novick, a field director with the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said that strong public education is vital to a healthy democracy. And, she added, it is a responsibility the city and state must uphold together.

But Novick is among the voices in the state who are saying the state isn't pulling its weight.

In her report, Novick highlighted findings by a 2015 commission that studied education funding in Massachusetts.

The Foundation Budget Review Commission found the state's education funding formula, known as the foundation budget, underestimates the cost of education by at least $1 billion a year.

A bill filed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, would implement recommendations of the commission. The Pittfield Public Schools Committee adopted a resolution Wednesday supporting the commission's recommended changes.

Those changes include updating the funding formula to better account for increases in health insurance and special education costs. The commission also said the formula underestimates the cost of educating low-income students and English language learners.

Pittsfield has a significant number of low-income students, English language learners and special education students.

"The state is not doing its fair share in making sure our children have the best education," said Ward 6 City Councilor John M. Krol Jr. "The city has used property taxes to do the best for its students."

He said the city is doubly hamstrung by state law.

Pittsfield is at its levy ceiling, meaning it cannot raise taxes to generate more money. The levy ceiling also precludes the city from asking voter permission for a Proposition 2 1/2 override to increase taxes.

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At the same time state education funding isn't as much as it should be, he said.

"It is definitely a Catch-22 for us as a community, building up year after year," he said.

Speaking during public comment, School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon said that Novick's presentation was a "beginning."

"There are many issues we face in fulfilling our constitutional obligation to our students," Yon said. "Become involved." Gov. Charlie Baker's fiscal 2018 budget proposal included $4.72 billion in Chapter 70 state education aid, an increase of $91.4 million over this year.

But Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless has said that doesn't amount to much when distributed to the state's nearly 330 school districts.

Under one potential timeframe for implementing the changes called for in Chang-Diaz's bill, schools would see an increase of approximately $200 million in state funding in the first year.

That bill is supported by Berkshire County's legislative delegation.

Still, Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers said people must speak with legislators about this issue.

"That formula needs to change," she said. "It grossly underfunds things that are very important."

Novick said she is optimistic that change could be coming.

The state Senate begins its budget deliberations in May.

Novick said that the senators "have been the most active and outspoken about this."

Information from the State House News Service was used in this report.

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo


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