By Jon Winkler
GROTON -- As the school year winds down, local administrators and teachers listened to the possibility of new ways to bring in funding.
State Sens. Jason Lewis and Edward J. Kennedy visited Groton Town Hall on Wednesday night to speak with voters about the current process of state school funding and what they hope to fix in the coming years. Though the state's current funding formula is meant to help distribute funding to each community's school districts properly, the senators pointed out that current state funding projections end up undervaluing certain elements of certain towns' educational needs.
"The goal of providing quality education for every students is actually enshrined in our state constitution," Lewis, co-chair of the state's Joint Committee on Education, said.
Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, explained that the state's school funding formula involves first calculating a funding amount, called a foundation budget, for each school district that's appropriate for said district's specific enrollment numbers and demographics. The state then determines how much funding each district's town will need to contribute to the determined foundation budget and how much state aid can be offered to make up the difference under state law Chapter 70. The local contribution is calculated by adding a town's property values and income, then dividing that number by the state-issued foundation budget.
Lewis provided a bar graph showing multiple towns' percentage of net school spending and measuring the amount of state aid they receive compared to their own contributions to reach the foundation budget. According to Lewis's data, Lawrence and Fitchburg make less local contributions while Natick and Tisbury require less state aid.
"The idea is that wealthier communities can afford to contribute more through their property taxes," Lewis said.
According to the state's Budget and Policy Center, the problem is that local school districts end up going over the foundation budget level and causing inequity overtime. Data collected by the center for the 2017 fiscal year determined that state schools went $1.44 billion over the foundation budget to pay for health insurance and $1.03 billion over the foundation budget for in-district special education teachers. This impacted other communities, including the town of Chelsea which could only contribute $2,250 to meet the foundation budget of $12,260 for the 2018 fiscal year, requiring $10,235 in state aid.
"The biggest problem is that the foundation budget has not kept up with the actual spending of towns," Lewis said. "The state has been underestimating what districts need for teaching special ed."
Lewis said that state legislators have "long recognized these inequities," creating the Foundation Budget Review Commission in 2014 to offer thorough reviews of the funding levels. To better reflect the conditions of each town, the commission focused on updating the anticipated costs of health insurance and special education along with the numbers of students learning English and low-income students.
In the meantime, Lewis added that the state Education Committee is looking into multiple legislation proposals that address the concerns of the Foundation Budget Review Commission and could be introduced by this June.
"We want to put together the best possible bill," Lewis said. "The challenges are in the terms of the different bills that take different approaches."
"The good news is that you have a great opportunity to do something substantial," added Kennedy, a Lowell Democrat.