AYER — The state, not the school district, should be faulted for annual assessment hikes that are causing so much pain for communities across the commonwealth, according to Ayer Shirley Regional School District School Committee Chairman Pat Kelly.
His colleagues agreed, signing on with him to send a resolution to state lawmakers this week that calls for restructuring the state education aid formula, which hasn’t been upgraded since it was initiated in 1994 as a result of a citizen’s lawsuit. The resolution has the backing of over 35 other communities across the commonwealth.
Size and ability to pay results in huge differences in the amount of state education aid each community gets, Kelly said at the ASRSD board meeting Tuesday night.
Based on those and other factors, aid might cover as much as 80 percent or as little as 15 percent of the total cost to educate students in public schools, Kelly said. “We’re somewhere in the middle,” he said of the local school district.
The FY2017 operating budget that the School Committee certified Tuesday ratified the same numbers previously presented to town officials in the two member towns that share its benefits and its costs. The total ASRSD operating budget of $29,697,059 and total assessment of $18,141,293 includes “excluded debt” both towns agreed to take on for the recently completed high school renovation project.
Annual assessments — $11,079,744 to Ayer and $7,061,549 to Shirley this year — were based in part on each town’s student enrollment and a split spelled out in the Regional Agreement, including an added amount assigned to Shirley to make up for a gap in educational spending prior to the merger.
Shirley’s “make up” payment, incrementally added to its assessment over five years, translated to $164,000 transferred from Ayer’s side of the bill to Shirley’s, School Committee Chairman Pat Kelly explained.
Finance Director Bill Plunkett said the district would absorb a $15,000 hike in health insurance costs this year, a move that ASRSD Superintendent Mary Malone said was intended to keep the total assessment increase under five percent.
Ayer’s assessment went up by 2.4 percent this year while Shirley’s went up by 8.1 percent, due to the makeup payment, for which this is the fifth and final year.
When the ASRSD budget was presented to Shirley Selectmen and Finance Committee members last week, both boards objected strongly to the assessment increase and to the budget as a whole, which they said was too high. There were calls for a do-over.
So far, however, the committee has held firm, looking for relief via a change in the Chapter 70 (state education aid) funding formula that Kelly said is long overdue.
The Foundation Budget Review Commission recommends that the state spend $2 billion more on education that it does now, Kelly said, citing steep increases in employee health insurance and out of district special ed placement costs that individual districts must cope with via assessments to the communities as well as in-budget adjustments that typically shortchange other line items, such as professional development.
Underscoring “how far off the mark” the Chapter 70 formula is, the state underestimated the cost of heath insurance by about $2 million and special education tuition exceeded state estimates by over $1.5 million, Kelly said.
With the governor’s budget out but the legislative budget still a work in progress, there’s no telling whether the final state budget outcome will hurt or help the district, Kelly said. “It could get worse.”
Now that it’s certified, the ASRSD budget goes to the state but that although that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone, it also doesn’t allow the figure to go up, Kelly said. “We can only lower it now,” he said. Which is almost certainly what the town of Shirley would want.
Last week, Shirley Selectmen indicated that Town Administrator Patrice Garvin would sit down with one or more school board representatives and FinCom members to negotiate a more affordable assessment.
As of this week, that had not happened, Dr. Malone said after the meeting.