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Modest state aid increase leaves many school systems strapped

Members of the group Yes for Reading consulted last month during a meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Governor Charlie Baker’s effort to boost local education aid would offer little relief to most school systems across Massachusetts that are grappling with escalating budget costs, according to a Globe review of the proposal.

Although Baker’s proposal increases aid by more than 2 percent overall, approximately 60 percent of school systems would receive an increase of less than 1 percent in general education aid, the review found. Two school systems under state receivership, Holyoke and Southbridge, would see aid increase by a mere 0.2 percent. Southbridge may have to cut 30 positions in the coming months.

The meager increases for next year reflect a recent trend of relatively flat state aid for many school systems under a funding formula widely criticized by educators for failing to adequately estimate the annual costs of providing a public education and accurately weigh a community’s ability to pay.


All the while, state data indicate that school spending has been increasing by nearly 4 percent annually.

As a result, the school funding crunch that has the urban districts of Brockton and Worcester considering a lawsuit against the state has also reached into the state’s suburban and rural areas, which are closely monitoring the potential legal showdown.

Many school systems say they find themselves in a constant budget-cutting mode as they attempt to keep spending down. They are increasingly relying on fees from families for buses, athletics, full-day kindergarten, and other programs to help fill in the gaps.

In some cases, school and town leaders have made the wrenching decision to ask voters to increase their property taxes beyond the state limit of 2.5 percent, a move that can pit neighbor against neighbor and can create lingering resentment regardless of the outcome of a vote.

Kristin Sullivan, a parent in the Dennis-Yarmouth school system, refers to a spate of budget cuts in recent years as “death by a thousand paper cuts.” Her school system would receive less than a 1 percent increase in state aid under the governor’s proposal.


“Public education is getting chipped away,” Sullivan said. “What is public education going to look like in 10 or 20 years if they don’t fix the funding formula? . . . It seems like almost every other year our towns need funding above and beyond the 2.5 percent limit because our state funding is lower than other districts.”

On Tuesday, two communities where tax override votes have failed in recent years will try their luck again.

North Attleborough, near Rhode Island, is seeking to raise $6.5 million in an effort to avoid closing an elementary school and other drastic cuts to the schools and town services, while Reading, north of Boston, is looking for $4.15 million to save a middle-school foreign language program and stave off other cuts in the schools and services.

Both towns, where state education aid is slated to increase by less than 1 percent, have well-organized groups promoting the overrides. In Reading, supporters recently gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church for a get-out-the-vote rally that drew about 100 supporters.

“It really comes down to voter turnout,” said Michele Sanphy, co-chair of Yes for Reading, in an interview. “The challenge is keeping people motivated, interested, and enthusiastic and avoid any sense of false security or complacency. We need every single vote.”


Other communities, though, would make out well under the governor’s proposal, including several well-to-do ones in terms of income or property wealth. Wellesley would increase 4.3 percent; Burlington, 5 percent; Wayland, 7 percent; and Winchester, 12.6 percent.

Those exceeding 4 percent increases also include some urban systems, such as Fitchburg, Lynn, and Fall River.

Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser, who advises Baker on education policy, said the wide span of increases reflect the intricacies of the state’s funding formula, which takes into account a variety of factors, including a community’s ability to pay and annual increases or decreases in enrollment.

Peyser also noted that Beacon Hill adjusted the formula a decade ago and that benefited some school systems in more affluent communities. The change, being implemented gradually, aims for the state to fund at least 17.5 percent of the costs of a school system’s “foundation budget,” the minimum amount a system is required to spend under the state’s formula. Previously, many affluent school systems were receiving very little state aid.

“The state is committed to providing a minimum share of resources to all communities,” Peyser said Friday.

Under Baker’s proposal, local education aid, known officially as Chapter 70, would reach $4.85 billion, representing an increase of $104 million. A good chunk of the increase is to help districts address rising health care costs.

But more money could be coming. Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the executive office of education, said Friday the administration is in the process of exploring a targeted funding increase for certain communities.


Yet even districts receiving big increases in aid are confronting problems. While state aid for Brookline schools is slated to go up 7.5 percent, voters this spring will consider a $6.6 million override, most of it for the school’s operating budget.

The system has been grappling with the twin challenges of rising costs and enrollment, and a ballot-box defeat could result in larger class sizes, fewer services for students who need help with academics or their social-emotional well-being, and other cuts.

The varying increases in state aid come as the state has been stepping up its demands on local schools, which in turn requires them to spend more money.

For instance, districts have been buying textbooks, software, and other materials as they bring programs into line with new state standards for teaching English and math. Many districts also have been buying computers and upgrading their operating networks because the state is moving its standardized testing system from paper booklets to cyberspace.

All the while, school systems say they are dealing with a growing population of students experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma — requiring a new set of services and instructional approaches — and a spate of national school shootings is prompting the need for more police officers in their schools.

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said more districts should be going for override votes to address the tight finances and the growing demands, but they don’t.

“I think there are many towns where the thought of going out for an override vote and knowing the resistance that would occur makes it too politically treacherous,” he said.


Three years ago in North Attleborough, voters rejected a $4 million override to support its school and town operating budgets — the second time in three years — forcing school officials to close an elementary school and reassign 900 students, among other cuts.

Now this bedroom community of 28,000 is facing the possibility of another school closing and other cuts if a $6.5 million override doesn’t pass Tuesday.

“There’s only been one year over the last 10 years that we didn’t have to do layoffs,” said Scott Holcomb, North Attleborough superintendent. “Our moral imperative is to open as many doors as possible for children, but any town or city going through what we are with budget cuts . . . runs the risk of closing doors and opportunities.”

On the North Shore, the towns making up the Triton Regional School District will be holding overrides this spring to support the district’s proposed operating budget. In Newbury, voters will consider a $359,790 override; in Rowley, a $532,640 override; and in Salisbury, an $800,000 override.

As with many systems, state aid for Triton is slated to increase by less than 1 percent next year. The portion of the district’s budget supported by state aid has shrunk from nearly 27 percent over a decade ago to 21 percent next year.

“We’ve been slowly cutting for years,” said Nerissa Wallen, a School Committee member.

If the overrides don’t pass, the district could face nearly $1 million in cuts, including 17 professional staffers, six instructional assistants, money for substitute teachers, new history textbooks for the high school, and districtwide teacher training.

She predicts that if the cutting continues, the district is one or two budget cycles away from experiencing the kind of class sizes becoming common in Brockton, with 30 or more students.

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.