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METCO students missing out on afterschool programs, officials say

(DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/File)

State Rep. David Linsky, the House chair of the METCO Caucus, did not want there to be any doubt about what METCO students, parents, administrators and supporters want out of the next state budget.

“We are requesting funding of $24.2 million. Remember that number. Twenty-four point two. Can everybody say that right now?” Linsky said before leading a group chant of “twenty-four point two” at the annual METCO lobby day Tuesday. “Twenty-four point two to ensure that all students are able to take advantage of afterschool programs and can participate in all their districts have to offer.”

METCO, the state-funded grant program that currently allows students from Boston and Springfield to attend public schools in 27 suburban communities, is asking the Legislature to fund it at $24.2 million for fiscal year 2020. That would represent a $2 million increase above the current budget.

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Milly Arbaje-Thomas, the CEO of METCO, said the new money would be used to fund afterschool “late bus” transportation, “so that our students can participate in plays, can participate in sports, can actually stay for play dates, can actually build relationships.”

Arbaje-Thomas said the funding boost would help close a gap created by rising costs for the program. METCO said that while Chapter 70 public school aid increased by 64 percent between fiscal years 2001 and 2019, funding for METCO increased just 44 percent.

“Last year we had a really good year. In 10 years we had not seen an increase [in transportation] and we saw an increase of $1.5 million last year. That money was used for transportation — the program really spends a lot of money transporting students to and from their districts — and a lot of times our students cannot participate fully in the experience at their districts because of the transportation barriers,” she said. “This year, we want to close that gap with $2 million.”

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Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget would provide $22,142,582 for METCO, a slight decrease from the current year’s budget. The House and Senate will reveal their own budget plans this spring.

Linsky told the students and supporters who turned out for the advocacy day Tuesday that he is a politician today, in part, because of the experience he got as a student on the Natick High School competitive speech and debate team.

“The most important parts of what I learned at school were afterschool,” he said. “That’s part of the school experience but you can only participate in that very important part of the school experience if you have a way to get home after it’s over. It doesn’t work if you don’t have the transportation and that’s why the transportation is so important.”

Before the students and supporters fanned out across the State House to lobby legislators for the full $24.4 million METCO request, they got a brief pep talk from METCO Board of Directors President Patrick Kimble, a METCO alumnus who today works in the investment world.

“In my industry, there is no force more powerful than the force of compound interest. For you guys in life, there is no force more powerful than the force of compound persistence,” he told the students. “I say that to you guys to say that no matter what it is you’re going through, you cannot stop. METCO was founded in 1966, it’s 2019. That’s over 50 years of compound persistence.”

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During a Ways and Means Committee hearing in Fall River on Monday, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley told lawmakers to expect “that we’re going to be doing a thorough review of the [METCO] program, everything from admissions to district-state governance” in the coming months.