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House budget includes less school aid than governor’ s proposal

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HARVARD — Earlier this year, the governor’s budget proposal sought an increase of Chapter 70 school aid for a majority of districts in the state. On April 10, most of those increases were shaved in the House of Representatives budget proposal, which means districts using the governor’s figures in their assumptions are facing a shortfall — at least for now.

The budget is open for further amendments before leaving the house, but the current version has the Ayer and Shirley schools level-funded from last year, which is $215,000 and $135,000 less than the governor’s budget, respectively. Though the Harvard schools got an increase of $74,843 in Chapter 70 aid, it was still approximately $40,000 less than what was projected in the governor’s budget.

However, all parties involved cited that the budget is still a work in progress until it’s finalized by the Senate in June.

Shirley Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Scott expressed hope that the numbers would increase by then.

”Certainly the hope is that it’s closer to the governor’s budget or better when it gets past the Senate,” he said. Being level funded is not good news.”

Ayer Assistant Superintendent Brian McDermott was similarly optimistic.

”The thing that’s most important is that everyone is saying the Senate will come out with better numbers,” he said. “We’re not making any adjustments at this point with our proposals until we hear what happens with the Senate.”

In meantime, house members are filing amendments to get the Chapter 70 and other items restored. Since the budget was released, some 1,500 have been filed.

After meeting with a group of like-minded legislators on April 11, an amendment that would either restore aid within the governor’s budget or re-institute aid levels before Chapter 70 cuts in 2003 was filed, said Eldridge.

While it’s too soon to tell if that amendment will be adopted, Eldridge said it’s likely there will be more aid in the final house budget.

”The message has been sent to house leadership that the numbers were unacceptable,” he said. “I am confident that the final house budget will be close to the governor’s numbers.”

House leadership attributed that cut to lower-than-expected tax revenues and a costly new health care plan, said Eldridge. Even so, he re-iterated his call for Chapter 70 reform.

The current formula gives a disproportionate amount of any new aid to communities that are not as well off. While he said that was understandable, he added that suburban communities need to get their fair share.

Earlier this year, Eldridge filed the so-called “Acton Proposal,” which would have established state-wide minimums of $2,000 per pupil in Chapter 70 aid.

In the case of Ayer, state Rep. Robert Hargraves, R-Groton, said he’s extremely disappointed with the house budget. He said leadership is claiming it was required because the cap on lottery aid was removed earlier this month. He said he doesn’t believe that because the governor’s proposal had that contingency as well. Hargraves said he’d be on the front lines of those calling for more funding.

”There’s going to be a lot of pressure on the house leadership to come forward with more money because it’s there,” he said.

Hargraves has signed an amendment filed by house republicans that would set fiscal year 2007 Chapter 70 aid for each district at either the amount received before cuts in 2002, the governor’s proposal or the amount slotted in the house budget, whichever is higher. The figures for those three tiers in Ayer are $4,486,000, $3,856,000 and $3,641,000, respectively.

Looking ahead, Hargraves said the Senate traditionally has been more generous than the house, but he didn’t know if Chapter 70 would be increased.

”My highest hope is that the governor’s budget, or numbers similar to it, will prevail,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of pressure to put those moneys back.”

In the case of Harvard, town administrator Paul Cohen said a $40,000 shortfall in Chapter 70 funding could be covered by the town’s new growth or local receipts revenues when the tax rate is set in December, though he also cautioned that it was early to begin planning such steps.

”It’s not the end of the process. We still have to see what the Senate does,” he said. “We wouldn’t go back to town meeting for a $40,000 adjustment.

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