An outdated school funding formula in Massachusetts is putting a severe strain on district budgets and deepening inequities in the educational system, a panel of school and other municipal leaders warned at a regional forum Tuesday at Malden High School.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 350 people that included parents, teachers, and local officials, the panelists said it is urgent Governor Charlie Baker and lawmakers take action this year to update the 25-year-old formula and significantly boost school aid, particularly for lower income districts.
“This is not a sustainable model of funding school systems in our state,” said Chelsea School Superintendent Mary Bourque. “The red flags have been in front of us for a number of years. . . . It is time to address it.”
The forum was one of three held simultaneously by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents to raise awareness about the school funding issue and mobilize support for a solution. The others were in Fitchburg and New Bedford.
Legislative leaders and Baker have vowed to address reforming the school funding formula this year after the House and Senate failed to reach a compromise on competing bills last session. Advocates say $1 billion to $2 billion in new state aid is needed to stem the tide of teacher layoffs and other cuts many districts already have endured.
“It’s like trying today to live on a household budget that you designed in 1993 that didn’t account for cellphones or a $150 cable bill every month, or all the other things we’ve grown accustomed to in our lives,” Revere School Superintendent Dianne Kelly said of the outmoded formula.
Established through the 1993 Education Reform Act, the formula weighs factors such as student population and demographics to determine a community’s “foundation budget,” the minimum it must spend on education. The formula then determines how much of that budget must be met by the local community; the rest comes from state aid.
A state commission in 2015 found that the formula was shortchanging districts by about $1 billion by failing to adequately account for their actual expenditures, particularly in special education, health care for school employees, and for the cost of educating low-income students and English language learners.
Tom Scott, executive director of the superintendents’ association, said the funding gap also exacerbates inequalities because low income districts are unable to boost local taxes to compensate for inadequate state aid the way richer ones can.
“This is about what do we want for our kids, do we want kids’ education and opportunities to be determined by zip code,” said Brockton Superintendent Kathleen A. Smith, who moderated the Malden forum.
A Powerpoint presentation highlighted how underfunding is impacting six North Shore communities. For example, the fiscal 2017 foundation budget set Lynn’s health insurance spending level at $17.7 million for school employees, but the city actually spent $38.4 million.
The six communities — Chelsea, Lynn, Malden, Revere, Salem, and Saugus — combined spent $121 million more than what the formula provided in the four areas highlighted in the 2015 commission report.
The presentation also detailed how districts have compensated for those higher costs by underfunding in other areas. The foundation budget, for example, provided for Malden to have 580 regular education teachers in 2017, but it had only 390.
Lincoln Lynch IV, executive director of finance and operations for the Framingham schools, said his city has experienced the formula problem, noting that despite cost cutting, it spent $18.2 million more for health care and $9.2 million more in special education in fiscal 2017 than the foundation budget provided.
Lynch, a panelist at the Fitchburg forum, said, “It’s great to see cities and towns, all of us, getting together for one reason: We’re here for the students.”
Bourque, the Chelsea superintendent, said the “grand bargain” of the 1993 reform law was that districts would expand opportunities for their students and become more accountable in return for adequate funding. She said districts have done their part, but “we need to see the adequate funding adjust with the years.”
Saugus Superintendent David DeRuosi said districts have increasingly had to bear costs to address challenges arising since 1993, such as the growing number of students from families struggling with poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction.
“How do we keep up with societal needs, that [question] plays out in every public school across the state,” he said.
Salem Mayor Kimberley L. Driscoll said her city has chosen to prioritize education, which takes up nearly 70 percent of its budget. But with legal and practical constraints on increasing property taxes, that has meant fewer resources for other city needs.
“We need a strong state partner that takes into account modern day problems with modern day revenue streams,” she said, adding that the strong economy make this a ripe time for greater state investment.
Chelsea City Manager Thomas Ambrosino agreed the state must bear more of the burden of school funding, saying that otherwise “you end up with the haves and the have nots,” referring to school districts that can afford to pass Proposition 2½ overrides and those that can’t.
Gina Garro, a Revere public school teacher and a board member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said after the forum she supported the call for greater funding but is concerned local officials might go along with connecting increased aid to performance on standardized tests and curricular requirements.
“What frightens me is I hear they are going to accept the money at any cost,” she said.
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.