At Pittsfield’s urging, Berkshire Hills challenges state school funding formula in strong terms
Great Barrington — The Berkshire Hills Regional School District might have little in common with the Pittsfield Public Schools beyond being in the same county. One is rural, regional and small; the other is far greater in size and largely urban.
But their school committees have a common concern about the way in which their schools are funded. The Pittsfield School Committee was so upset by the failure of the state legislature to reform a funding formula for schools that it sent a sharply worded letter to legislative leaders.
At issue is state funding for the so-called foundation budget, which state education law says is the minimum amount a school district must spend per year to educate its students and run the district.
The failure of the state to set adequate foundation budgets has also prompted the Pittsfield School Committee to reach out to other districts, including Berkshire Hills, to urge them to get involved. Click here to read the Pittsfield letter to lawmakers and a subsequent letter to Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon from Pittsfield School Committee Chairman Katherine Yon.
Yon told the Edge the resolution was passed at the Pittsfield School Committee’s Aug. 12 meeting and was drafted by committeeman Bill Cameron, a member of Berkshire County Education Task Force and a retired superintendent of the Central Berkshire Regional School District.
Yon said her committee was inspired to complain to the state after seeing a presentation recently by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees on the state Foundation Budget Review Committee, which recommended changes in the formula that would have increased state aid to the schools. A subsequent bill brought before the legislature passed unanimously in the Senate but stalled in the House in late July. Click here to read the commission’s findings and recommendations, and click here to read the Senate’s version of the bill.
“We sent a copy of our letter and resolutions to just about everyone,” Yon said. “They’re all very supportive.”
To give readers an idea of how much the low foundation budget cost Pittsfield, Yon cited the Pittsfield School’s healthcare expenses in fiscal year 2016. That amount was $10.6 million more than the foundation budget allowed, meaning it was only 37 percent funded and the city had to make up the difference.
Advocates for overhauling the foundation budget say the funding gap statewide is between $1 billion and $2 billion. Yon said the faulty foundation budget hits poorer districts like Pittsfield especially hard since they do not typically spend much higher than the minimum budget required by the state.
In addition to Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, Yon found support from the rest of the Berkshire delegation to Beacon Hill, including Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. Click here to read a letter from Hinds responding to Yon.
The letter caught the eye of Bannon and Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon, who brought it before their own school committee at its September 6 meeting, where the resolution was approved unanimously and with no discussion. Click here to read the Berkshire Hills statement.
“To our elected officials, we want this to be a top priority,” Dillon said in an interview. “The original formula couldn’t possibly have anticipated what happened in 25 years. The funding is not keeping up with the need and the burden being shifted to local communities.”
In determining their budgets and assessments to taxpayers, school committees must deal with a variety of factors. First, the state sets a foundation budget and establishes the so-called the Minimum Local Contribution, which Berkshire Hills business administrator Sharon Harrison has called “one of the most convoluted formulas I have ever worked with.”
The MLC is the local revenue source that funds the foundation budget. The state calculates each town’s MLC based on its perceived wealth and ability to pay. The state then backfills the difference between the MLC and foundation budget with Chapter 70 funding, which came into existence as a result of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 that overhauled how education was funded in the state.
Click here to read a primer on Chapter 70 and see the video below from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research group:
So if the foundation budget doesn’t keep pace with the financial needs of a school district, then the demands on local taxpayers grow. That’s the fix that school officials find themselves in.
Officials say the foundation budget is adjusted and increased each year but mostly along the lines of inflation. This year, Dillon said, state aid to Berkshire Hills is increasing by $50 per student. But several expenses school districts are confronted with increase at a pace that greatly exceeds inflation: health insurance for current employees and retirees; special education, especially out-of-district placements; English language instruction for non-native speakers; preschool; data collection, including how students are counted; and transportation.
“The promise was 100 percent,” said Dillon, “And it’s only been anywhere from 35 to 80 percent.”
“There is a growing consensus that the foundation budget needs to be revisited,” said Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee member Rich Dohoney of Great Barrington, whose residents are weary of budget increases caused by the MLC. “Anything we can do to improve on that process is good. It is the number-one driver of the increase in our assessments over last 10 years.”
The resolution passed by the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee reads, in part, that in passing the most recent budget, the state legislature “has violated the public trust by failing to revise the foundation budget funding for Massachusetts public school districts.” Furthermore, that inaction compromises the district’s programming and “constitutes a failure to recognize the ever greater financial pressure on all communities such as our member towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.”
So what happened to doom the legislation? There was considerable lobbying. Yon and Pittsfield Public Schools superintendent Jason McCandless, for example, traveled to Boston last summer to give testimony on Beacon Hill.
It passed in the Senate on May 11 but later stalled in the House. In an interview, Hinds said lawmakers expressed concerns about where the money was going to come from to fund the foundation budget adjustment.
State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, D-Jamaica Plain, sponsored the Senate bill. After it died in the House, she took to Twitter to express her dismay:
“We will try again,” Hinds said in an interview. “This ending has upset people throughout the Commonwealth, so I think enough is enough. Next time, we will have to include a new mechanism for funding.”
Indeed, according to Pignatelli, “It was all about the funding.” Much of it was going to come from a ballot proposition to amend the state constitution that amounted to a special 4 percent surtax on Massachusetts residents with incomes in excess of $1 million. The estimated $2 billion in revenue that the tax would generate was to be set aside specifically for education and transportation.
When the Senate passed the bill, the proposition was still on the ballot. But about a month later, the state Supreme Judicial Court essentially ruled that the measure was unconstitutional and that it could not be on the ballot. That meant that a key funding component for foundation budget reform had disappeared, which made the bill less attractive to lawmakers.
“The House also had its version,” Pignatelli said in an interview. “They tried to reconcile the two in conference but they couldn’t reach an agreement … There’s enough finger-pointing for everyone. I’m sure the work on this will continue to go on.”
Glenn Koocher, executive director of MASC, told the Edge he was skeptical of the court’s decision: “How can a constitutional amendment be unconstitutional?”
Koocher said of the existing foundation budget formula, “Low-income districts tend to be more affected—or gateway cities, any town with high-risk kids and a low tax base.”
Of the court’s motives, Koocher added that he wasn’t surprised since many of the justices were appointed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker: “The flat [income] tax is built into constitution, so the SJC took it off the table. They did the bidding of big business and those who don’t want to pay more taxes.”
Hinds, who last week defeated Lee Selectman Tom Wickham in a Democratic primary and now faces no opponent in his bid for a second term, has been very active on school funding, securing additional funding this year for rural schools in his district. He is confident foundation budget reform will be taken up in January, adding that “this is the biggest issue we will face in the new term.”
“It definitely has to be addressed, but we’ve had this same conversation over the last 16 years,” Pignatelli added. “It has not been resolved because with legitimate reforms there are winners and losers. If you get more money, that’s a great reform. If you get less money, then it’s not a good reform … The issue can’t go away — no doubt.”