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State Sen. Adam Hinds, left, and state Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and William 'Smitty' Pignatelli with MASC Division VI Vice Chairwoman and Lee School Committee member Andrea Wadsworth. State Rep. John Barrett III was unable to attend.

County School Officials Press Legislators on School Funding Formula

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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LEE, Mass. — Local school officials pressed members of the Berkshire delegation to make education funding a priority in the coming legislative year. 
 
And the legislators urged them to keep up the pressure. 
 
"The pressure we feel at home can translate into action at the State House," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, explaining that when they speak with legislative leaders, "I can go and say this is the most important issue in Pittsfield."
 
But while the Pittsfield representative is a firm believer in grassroots activism, she said the critical part of the equation is finding new revenue. 
 
"We're underfunding Chapter 70 [education aid] by $2 billion a year ... we're all fighting over crumbs," Farley-Bouvier told the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees Division VI in the Lee High School cafeteria on Monday. "The real solution is to get more revenue. The millionaire's tax is a good way to do it."
 
With the so-called "millionaire's tax" off the ballot in November, an anticipated $1.5 billion in revenue is also off the table. 
 
"A lot of this was dependent on the millionaire's tax," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli. "That took a billion and a half to $2 billion we thought we were going to have."
 
The amendment would have instituted a 4 percent tax on any income after the first $1 million. It would not have been applied to assets. The amendment had made it through two consecutive constitutional convention votes and was set to go before the voters but was struck down by the Supreme Judicial Court less than two weeks before the end of the fiscal year.
 
Frustrated lawmakers had pegged the added revenue to education and transportation, but the court had blocked the ballot question precisely because it related taxing and spending in a single question.
 
The House and Senate then attempted to craft a compromise education bill that would offer additional resources for special education and employee health benefits in the school funding formula during the final days of the session but that, too, failed. 
 
Pignatelli, in response to questions from school officials, said the education funding talks had largely collapsed because there wasn't anyone to talk to on the Senate side.
 
"The differences were very dramatic," he said of the bills on each side. "We were scheduled to be there the entire weekend ... The Senate changed leadership on Thursday and they went home for the weekend. We went home because there was nobody to talk to ... for the last five days we didn't have any dance partners." 
 
Senators blamed the House leadership for failing to make any traction on the recommendations made by the last Foundation Budget Review Commission in 2015. 
 
"I feel slightly more optimistic next year we'll see changes," said state Sen. Adam Hinds. "This and some other changes have to be at the top of the list."
 
Pignatelli agreed that there will be a lot to take up in the next session: "I would hate to see another fiscal year budget get approved without solving some of these problems."
 
Farley-Bouvier was still hopeful that millionaire's tax could be resurrected in a way that satisfied the Supreme Judicial Court, but that solution will now be several years away. 
 
"We have a way to collect revenue for the 20th century but we need a way to collect revenue for the 21st century," she said. 
 
Pignatelli noted that there'd already been several panaceas floated over the years to supplement the state's coffers — like casinos and marijuana — that are just now getting started. 
 
"There's a different momentum going into this legislative session that we have to do this," he said. "The burden on the local municipalities and the local taxpayers is growing and we have to step up."
 
But he added, lawmakers know the problem and perhaps the people working and overseeing the schools can provide some solutions.
 
"The rate of inflation hasn't kept pace with the growth of state revenue ... when you cut a teacher, you cut a program. People ask why are you doing this because they don't know how the system works," said Glenn Koocher, MASC executive director. School officials get "kicked in the shin" so they turn to state officials in their frustration. "We go to the Legislature and 'say fix this.'"
 
But Koocher also noted that MASC had asked lawmakers to go a little slower in ensuring that real fixes were made to the foundation budget, particularly the accounting for children who are economically disadvantaged but don't show up through traditional means of access to social services. 
 
A school's foundation budget is calculated by factors including the number of children, the cost of administrative services, special education and economic disadvantage to determine the cost to adequately educate a student. Using Lee and Lenox as examples, Koocher explained how Lee's cost per pupil is higher because it has more students requiring services. 
 
"The more economically disadvantaged, the higher your budget," he said. "The theory is you wouldn't need as much money to educate students who were not at economic risk."
 
School officials are advocating for foundation budgets to better reflect costs that are eating up budgets like health insurance, retiree benefits and special education. MASC is also asking for better accounting of children at economic risk, specifically undocumented children, who cannot receive the benefits that are used to quantify low-income students. 
 
"There are no right answers and there are no easy answers," Koocher said. "The reason we are still working on getting the foundation budget done is we have so many unanswered questions. ... 
 
"We need to do it right before we get it done."

Tags: Berkshire delegation,   chapter 70,   MASC,   

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