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School officials laud revival of budget panel

After grappling for years with steep money constraints, area school leaders are hailing the return of a state panel they say could bring fresh attention to the funding needs of local education.

“I’m very excited about it. It’s long overdue,” the Rockland school system’s superintendent, John Retchless, said of the state Legislature’s revival of the Foundation Budget Review Commission.

The state’s 1993 education reform law created the commission to periodically assess the need for revisions to the funding system it created. But the panel has been dormant since about 2000. Concerned the law had become outdated, the Legislature reestablished the panel as part of this year’s budget.


The panel, which began meeting last week, will review the foundation budget formula, which sets the minimum spending level that the state requires for a school district to meet local educational needs. The foundation budget is different for each district, based on a formula that involves multiplying the number of pupils in 14 enrollment categories by cost rates in 11 functional areas.

Local school leaders said they hope the commission’s work will lead to more resources to help districts keep pace with rising costs. While the panel is focused on foundation budgets, any adjustments to the formula would also affect state school aid and municipal spending on schools, since together they cover most of the costs of local education.

Retchless said the foundation formula has failed to reflect the steep cost increases school districts have faced, particularly in special education and health insurance, which have diminished available funds for other budget needs.

“It’s been very tight,” he said of his district’s finances, noting that Rockland’s budget this year was $600,000 below what was needed to maintain existing services.

Hanover Superintendent Matthew Ferron agreed that “it would be very helpful for the commission to be looking at those increasing costs that are related to special education, insurance, and other state programs and mandates.”


“The foundation budget is a formula that drives over $10 billion a year in state and local investments in public education,’’ said state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education as well as the foundation review panel, in an interview. (Under the new legislation, the committee cochairs play the same role on the commission.) “Making sure it is a well-written formula is hugely important for all of Massachusetts.”

David Tobin, an adviser on school finance issues to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said actual yearly statewide health spending by districts is $1.2 billion above what the foundation budget provides. Similarly, the actual cost of special education is $1 billion above it.

Tobin said to keep pace with those costs, districts have had to reduce spending for teachers and other critical needs. He said many have also exceeded their foundation budgets and, since extra spending must come from the local community, “that causes a great deal of tension” between the school and municipal sides of government.

He said his association advocates adjusting the formula to reflect actual costs, and in so doing to provide additional state aid to the struggling districts.

That is a goal also voiced by John Tuffy, superintendent for the Silver Lake Regional School District, which serves seventh- to 12th-grade students from Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton. Tuffy said the district has had very tight budgets since the economic downturn of 2008, with rising costs in health insurance, special education, and technology a factor.


“There are fewer teachers, support staff, and administrators in fiscal year 2015 than there were in fiscal year 2008,” he said. Tuffy, who is also superintendent for the three towns’ elementary schools, said they have faced similar budget constraints.

Brockton Superintendent Kathleen Smith said her district is urging the state to update the funding formula to more fully account for the costs it has faced as a result of an enrollment surge of about 2,000 students in the past five years. She said the resources provided to the district have fallen well short of what is needed to cover the costs of the student influx.

The 1993 education reform law worked, said Smith, noting the improvements Brockton and other older cities were able to make using added funds that came with it. “But now we are seeing other social things happening, and the funding formula needs to take those into account,” she said.

The Suburban Coalition, a statewide group that advocates for adequate resources for communities, also believes a revamping of the school financing formula and increased state aid are sorely needed, according to Walpole School Committee member Nancy Gallivan, its vice president.

She said growing technology costs faced by school districts alone show how the current formula is woefully outdated.

“When the law first took effect in 1993, in our district we were fund-raising to get a few computers into every classroom. But now you could not have classrooms without Internet capacity,” she said.


Encouraged that a state body will now be focusing on the school funding issue, Gallivan said, “I think there is hope we are not just identifying a problem, but working toward a solution.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.