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City officials threaten lawsuit over education funding if Legislature fails to make progress

Brockton Superintendent Kathleen Smith (center) made a point about her school system’s budget challenges.
Brockton Superintendent Kathleen Smith (center) made a point about her school system’s budget challenges.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Officials from three Massachusetts cities struggling with funding and performance gaps in their schools fired off a warning shot to Beacon Hill on Wednesday, saying they will move forward with a potential lawsuit against the state should lawmakers fail to make meaningful progress fixing the education funding formula.

The mayors of Brockton, New Bedford, and Worcester said at a press briefing that they are encouraged by the steps and statements Governor Charlie Baker and the Legislature have made on overhauling the formula used to dole out aid to local districts. They don’t want to sue, the mayors and their lawyers stressed, but they will if the promised changes do not materialize.

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“We will wait patiently to see what happens in that process,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon F. Mitchell, referring to assurances that Beacon Hill leaders have given that they will pass legislation revamping the 26-year-old school funding formula. But it’s been four years since a legislative commission identified serious shortcomings in the funding formula, he noted. That report estimated the state was shortchanging students in urban districts hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

“We’ve been waiting for a while,” Mitchell said. “We can’t wait forever.”

None of the officials would give an explicit timeline by which they need to see action, though some indicated a desire to see a bill done by the start of next school year.

The gateway city officials argued specifically for more funding for districts with high concentrations of low-income students and those learning English as a second language. Both populations are more costly to educate than other students, and the 2015 legislative commission said those groups need more money to be adequately funded.

Baker introduced his version of legislation refurbishing the funding formula earlier this year. His bill would boost K-12 education aid to municipalities by about $500 million at the end of seven years, according to one estimate. Leaders in both the state House and Senate have said they don’t think Baker’s bill goes far enough, but it remains unclear exactly which approach will gain traction in the Legislature.

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Other midsize cities are supportive of the stance Brockton, New Bedford, and Worcester are taking on the issue, and would consider signing on to a future lawsuit, if it moves forward, said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who spoke at the event.

“The Education Committee is hard at work reviewing proposals for school funding reform, and continuing to engage with education stakeholders across Massachusetts. Our goal is to release legislation from the committee in the near future that fully implements the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission,” said Senate Education Committee chairman, Jason Lewis of Winchester, in a statement this week.

Should they ultimately choose the litigious path, the three cities are preparing a lawsuit that argues the state is failing to live up to its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to students in these districts, said Patrick Moore, a partner with Hemenway & Barnes LLP, who is working with the cities. The argument would rely on the 1993 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that led to the current funding formula — a ruling prompted by another lawsuit in which Brockton was a lead plaintiff.

The 1993 plan the state established to satisfy that ruling “has atrophied to the point of failure,” said Moore. He pointed to data showing that suburban districts bordering the gateway cities are spending as much as double per pupil, even while the urban districts have seen their populations of high-need students — including those who are homeless, low-income, or new to the country — grow.

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Years of inadequate state support have had a cumulative effect, said Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter. “We’re now at the breaking point. We’re here now talking about a lawsuit because we know we cannot do one more year of this without decimating our school systems. . . . We’ve closed schools, we’ve laid off teachers, we’ve eliminated electives. If you can cut it we’ve cut it. To a certain extent we almost feel backed into a corner, that this is our last option.”


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.