At the presentation of the Brockton Public Schools' budget before the City Council Finance Committee on Wednesday night, Superintendent Kathleen Smith raised the idea that it might be time to consider a lawsuit again:
Superintendent Kathleen Smith, presenting her department’s budget Wednesday night, said that urban school districts are “under assault” by a funding formula that does not adequately take into account the expense of teaching homeless students and those who speak other languages, all while suburban districts are pushing for a larger slice of state money.
“I do feel like there is an assault on urban districts,” Smith said. “It is time to work with other urban districts and push back and talk about the things that we deal with that are not dealt with in every district.”
Smith called on councilors to join her and other city officials in exploring another “equity lawsuit” that could force the state to return to the mandate it was given 20 years ago. The Brockton Public Schools’ $165 million budget proposal includes as many as 125 teacher layoffs, and more than 60 cuts to other positions.
Not surprisingly, this caught the attention of others across the state; Commonwealth Magazine wrote:
While no one else is yet looking to the courts to once again shake up Beacon Hill, the examples of urban systems, especially those in the Gateway Cities, struggling to meet their mandated funding levels are sprouting up like low-pressure areas in the Caribbean in the fall. Individually, they are head-shaking illustrations of tight fiscal dollars as cities and towns – and the state – emerge from the devastation of the Great Recession and its effect on revenues, especially property tax dollars. Collectively, they portend for the type of radical change in the state funding formula that occurred in the wake of McDuffy v Secretary of Education.
In Fall River, the school department will begin the fiscal year with a $2.6 million deficit. In New Bedford, Mayor Jon Mitchell reduced the $126 million budget request from Superintendent Pia Durkin for the city’s embattled system by $7 million. Mitchell rejected a measure from the City Council that would have allowed them to increase proposed appropriations rather than being limited to only cutting.
Out west, the picture is no less bleak. The state has taken over the chronically underfunded and underperforming Holyoke system, an action that was codified as a significant part of the education reform law in 1993. But that’s not a solution that will work statewide.
In Westfield, another Gateway City, school officials are preparing to cut 42 positions from the payroll to deal with a needed $1.5 million cut to balance the budget.
In Lynn, city officials have asked the state to allow them to credit spending on retired teachers’ health care to close the nearly $18 million gap between net school spending and the required foundation budget.
In fact, of the 22 school districts that spent below the foundation budget level in 2013, the most recent figures available, nine were Gateway Cities and at least four more were vocational schools that serve urban districts
And of course, one of those was Worcester*.
WBUR goes a bit further on that stat:
They're using this chart to do that sorting, and they're sorting--important detail--by amount above foundation. They're not sorting by the final column, amount above required net school spending. That list, which gives all the districts that either aren't meeting the requirement for that year OR have a carryover from a prior year, is even longer: 36 districts ('though one of them is Gosnold, which may be a fluke), and again, most of them are urban.
That's probably more telling.
Does this mean we're all jumping back in? No.
I hope, though, that this has caught the attention of the Legislature and the Foundation Budget Review Commission. If a report comes out that misrepresents the numbers on the ground as badly as the 4% for in-district special education, that's clear evidence that the actual needs of districts aren't being calculated.
Also, if you read what Superintendent Clark says in the above articles, she isn't just concerned about the work of the Commission: her remark "all while suburban districts are pushing for a larger slice of state money" brings up discussions outside the committee about minimum aid to districts and the municipal wealth formula. That's the next step once the FBRC issues its report, but she's absolutely right to be laying the groundwork now on what that will look like.
So head's up at the State House. We're watching your work.
*Did you notice, though, that we aren't mentioned in the districts listed as making horrible cuts in their budgets? That's because this year, Worcester isn't. While some of that is solid financial work, most of it is that our foundation budget increased by $14.6 million. Remember, though, this chart:
Most of Worcester's increase is due to enrollment increases and demographic changes. That's not a sustainable way to carry our budget forward, as we can't count on those. Thus, while it isn't us this year, it would be if all we had to depend on was the inflation rate.