How it adds up: Legislators and school board discuss Chapter 70 funding
When the W-H Regional School District budget is rolled out Feb. 3, it will consist of two scenarios — one reflecting the increased costs in a level-service budget and one a student-success budget — according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner.
The latter would add $3 million to the level-service budget to bring back cut library and art programs, decrease class size, bolster writing skills and improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) instruction.
“What we’ve been doing in our district planning is looking at where we’ve been, where we are and where we’d like to be three years from now,” Gilbert-Whitner said at the Wednesday, Jan. 13 School Committee meeting. “Clearly, where we are today we’re seeing that revenue has been stagnant but costs that we have no control over continue to increase.”
The School Committee, Hanson Selectmen, teachers’ union members and several concerned residents heard presentations from state representatives Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury and Geoff Diehl, R-Whitman, as well as state Sen. Mike Brady, D-Brockton, on how the state calculates aid such as Chapter 70 funds to the district are calculated and affect the budget.
They also touched on the budget impact of unfunded state and federal mandates.
“I don’t think any of us here are comfortable with the lack of full funding for education,” Diehl said. “But the ground beneath us is moving constantly. The Foundation Funding Formula known as Chapter 70 is under review and at the same time we are trying to navigate changes caused by the adoption of Common Core.”
Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget will be delivered to the House at the end of the month on the heels of a second year in which state revenues have failed to meet expenditures, Diehl noted.
There is, for example, only $1.25 billion in the state’s stabilization fund, “a historic low which is below the national average” and affects the state’s credit rating, Diehl added. State borrowing is also nearing its allowed limit.
“All these elements provide a background of uncertainty about the future, but we’re tackling those challenges each and every day to turn it around,” he said.
Most of the discussion was devoted to an effort to explain the Foundation Funding Formula and how it might be changing.
Currently, the formula includes district enrollment — including demographics, grade level and special education, English proficiency or vocational program involvement as well as income data — factoring in 14 enrollment and 11 program areas. Communities are assigned minimum local contributions to the school budget as well as an “extra local contribution,” or target share. Falling short of the target share can affect the amount of Chapter 70 funds a district receives. Local contributions are based on property values and aggregate resident income.
Hanson’s contribution of $1,322,998 is currently 7.66 percent below target share and Whitman, at $1,170,654 is 4.82 percent short. The district has invited Department of Elementary and Secondary Education representative Melissa King to an upcoming meeting to further explain the Foundation Funding Formula.
“We’re about 1 or 2 percent over the foundation budget, while towns around us were meeting that state pupil average, or getting closer to it, are well above their minimum budget,” said Whitman resident Chris George. “That either comes from state aid — which we know they’re not getting — or it comes from the taxpayers.”
A member of W-H Support Our Schools, he said the choices were to go after other town departments or choose to raise the revenue base.
“It’s time to pay the piper,” George said. “We benefitted for years, we shouldn’t be putting it on the backs of our kids.”
W-H receives the third-highest state reimbursement of the state’s regional schools, but is 29th of 87 regional districts in per-pupil spending — 10th from the bottom in per-pupil expenditures among all state public school districts.
“Whitman and Hanson are both residential communities with very little commercial infrastructure, but we’re weighted the same as a Braintree that has South Shore Plaza,” said School Committee member Fred Small. “We’re weighted the same as Brockton that is a city that has malls and many businesses and a lot of commercial enterprises.”
He said state funds fall short of what the district needs and puts the burden on the back of the taxpayer.
“The one-size-fits-all formula is what’s discouraging,” School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes. “It makes W-H look like they get a lot because [we’re] third in regional schools, but there are other parts of this budget that it fails in. … You can’t just pick a number and say, ‘That’s enough.’”
Hanson Interim Town Administrator Richard LaCamera said the problem has been ongoing for a number of years.
“To funding provided for the W-H Regional School District is [near] the bottom of the state,” he said. “To think this coming year that we’re going to get a significant increase in state aid, I think, is unlikely.”
All Hanson’s town budgets have been level-funded for fiscal 2017 with only about $650,000 left to spend for all departments, including school assessments.
“It’s going to be very difficult,” he said.
“We’re very aware that W-H gets a significant percentage of its budget from the state,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “We’re also realistic in knowing that’s not going to increase at a level that’s going to solve our problems.”
Her major concern, however, was that regionalization was approved by voters because of the promised state funding as an incentive for it.
“Something was done to W-H at the state level that hasn’t been fixed,” she said. “The towns, I believe, believe in education, but they have revenue issues that have to be addressed.”
Cutler noted that he, Diehl and Brady have all worked in municipal government and understand the challenges and frustrations.
“There’s two issues here,” he said. “One is the size of the budget and how much you get from the state year to year. … The size of the pie we have control over … how the pie gets divvied up is all done by formula.”
Each year, Chapter 70 aid is increased by $25 per pupil for the 201 districts where local contributions do not permit an overall increase in Chapter 70 aid.
Small asked the legislators to work toward increasing that to at least $50 per pupil, but $100 to $200 would really be needed to come closer to closing the gap.
Diehl also indicated the state has also backed off full transportation reimbursement — now at 66 percent of the WHRSD $1.2 million transportation cost for students living 1.5 miles from school — as a way to force districts to “put skin in the game” and prevent some districts’ practice of billing unworkable bus schedules to the state. He argued 66 percent is still too low and noted the local legislators are working to try and get the reimbursement increased.
Hayes also pointed out that regional schools are not permitted to charge for, or opt out of busing students.
A federal mandate to provide transportation for homeless students from shelter facilities to their “origin district,” was initially unfunded and is still underfunded, Diehl argued.