Friday, March 10, 2017

Credit where due

In skimming the district budget updates, I came across this:
Chapter 70 for fiscal year 2018 increased by $1.9 million to $7.7 million. After years of advocacy from the town and state representatives, as well as collaboration between the School Committee and Board of Selectmen, Westborough saw the largest increase anywhere in the state.
With Wednesday's presentation fresh in my mind, I knew that a $1.9M increase wasn't the largest increase in the state; Worcester increased $9M over last year. As the Commonwealth (God bless her!) shares everyone's numbers online, I checked and Springfield, with a $12M increase over last year, gains the most.
(If you're wondering: download the FY18 workbook, and if pick the spreadsheet "comparison to FY17," you can sort by the Ch.70 increase column. As always, if what I say here makes no sense to you, please let me know.)

It's the beginning of the second sentence that caught me, though, because we hear it a lot this time of year, and I want to parse where we're at with that one. As I heard a legislator say last night, Chapter 70 is "a sacred cow." When cuts come, it--and usually local aid--are the two that are not touched. So let's, legitimately, give credit for that.

When increases do come, though, let's recognize why.

If you're a district that would not see an increase in foundation aid--if you haven't had a gain in enrollment, if your enrollment hasn't shifted to higher need over last year, and if the inflation rate is flatish--then, yes, any increase you see is due probably to the advocacy around a minimum per pupil increase. That isn't part of the foundation budget. That's done at the decision of the Legislature.
And it tends to be regressive in who it helps, but set that aside for now. 

But $1.9 million on a district the size of Westborough's (enrollment 3849) didn't make any sense. I don't want to underplay anyone's advocacy, but the state isn't handing out nearly $500 per pupil increases!

It had to be Westborough's foundation budget.
So if you pull up Westborough's FY17 sheet, and compare it to FY18, here's what you find (I just put the enrollment numbers together on one sheet):

The district enrollment went up by 286 students over FY17's count. That bumps up the special education calculations (since they're based on a flat percentage of enrollment). Also, look where those increases of students came in: the district has 40 more K-12 ELL students than last year; while they have 25 fewer half-day ELL students, the jump on full day makes a bigger difference. There's growth in every category on down, with a really big jump in kindergarten, both full and half day. All together, these are the big pieces of a jump of Westborough's foundation budget by $3M (I'm not adding those spreadsheets here, lest it get too busy).

Because of Westborough's community finances, they're really close to the maximum of 82.5% that the state requires a community to pay towards their foundation budget (of course, Westborough contributes more). A jump of $3M in the foundation budget over a single year thus gets picked up not by the community, but largely by the state.
And that--not the advocacy of anyone save McDuffy--is why Westborough is getting more state aid next year.

Let me add here that I don't say this to pick on Westborough (I have a soft spot for Westborough; I did my student teaching there). Some of what gets said at school committee and other public meetings is political, and I recognize that. We do our best advocacy, though, if we are accurate in ascribing changes to what caused them.
We can only fix the foundation budget if we know what it does.

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