Superintendents spotlight ed funding formula flaws

Say they can’t keep cutting to offset rising, uncovered costs

PUBLIC SCHOOL superintendents made the case for changing the state funding formula for education at forums in New Bedford, Fitchburg, and Malden on Tuesday as lawmakers on Beacon Hill prepared to roll out legislation addressing the problem.

After the House and Senate failed to agree on school funding legislation at the end of the last session, proponents are pulling out all the stops this year. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who cochairs the Joint Education Committee, is unveiling what she calls the Promise Act on Wednesday with a supporting cast that includes Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and legislative leaders.

But even more compelling are the stories of local school superintendents who say they are barely staying afloat under the current funding formula. The formula, developed in 1993, attempts to provide each school district with a foundation budget reflecting the cost of educating that district’s students and the surrounding community’s ability to pay. A commission concluded in 2015 that the formula was failing to adequately account for the rising cost of employee health insurance and surging expenses for special education and programs for low-income and English language learners.

At the Fitchburg forum, Brian Allen, the chief financial and operations officer for the Worcester schools, said 10 local districts spent $174 million in 2017 above what the formula estimated was needed to cover just employee health insurance and special education services. School officials said they were running out of places to cut spending to make up the difference.

“There’s really no where to go from here,” said Worcester Schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda.

At the New Bedford forum, officials from Wareham said they had cut 80 school positions over the last eight years while Taunton leaders said they closed schools and moved the superintendent’s office into an elementary school.

“We can’t meet the needs of our students,” said David Sawyer, the superintendent in Attleboro. “There’s nowhere left to go.”

At the Malden forum, Revere Superintendent Dianne Kelly said the inadequate funding formula creates an equity gap between students in districts without access to additional resources and wealthier districts that can often tap their residents for more money.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“We’ve been living on a fixed income since 1993, and that fixed income is not working,” said Chelsea Superintendent Mary Bourque. “This is not a sustainable model for funding school systems in our state.”

Fixing the formula won’t be easy. Many estimate the tab to fix the formula will be more than $1 billion. The House and Senate couldn’t agree how to address the problem last year, and Gov. Charlie Baker has indicated he will weigh in with his own legislative proposal this year. Communities such as Brockton and Worcester have been watching and waiting for a long time, and leaders in those cities say they may take legal action to fix the formula if policymakers on Beacon Hill fail to act.