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Public school enrollment expectations create budgeting wildcard

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BOSTON – School committee members and superintendents flagged concerns Tuesday with the enrollment numbers used to determine education funding levels in Gov. Charlie Baker’s fiscal 2022 budget, telling lawmakers that schools would be ill-equipped under his proposal if the students who left their districts this year return in the fall.

The state’s 400 school districts experienced an enrollment drop of more than 30,000 students this year, largely driven by declines in pre-K and kindergarten. Officials have said they expect many of those students will be back in public school systems next year as parents newly enroll or re-enroll kids they’ve kept home for a year, but it is unclear how many will return.

As of Oct. 1, 2020, there were 911,465 students enrolled in Massachusetts public schools, down from 948,828 the previous year, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data.

Each year’s Oct. 1 enrollment numbers become the basis for per-student funding formulas in the next fiscal year’s budget. Some speakers at a Ways and Means Committee hearing Tuesday on Baker’s $45.6 billion budget said that the pandemic’s disruptions and the presumed temporary nature of the 2020 enrollment decline mean that those numbers are not the right ones to use when building education funding plans for next year.

Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School Committee member Ellen Holmes, the president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said in her written testimony that many students have already returned since October and suggested that Oct. 1, 2019 numbers “would provide a more accurate accounting.”

“To use the October 1, 2020 figures deliberately constructs a structural deficit for public school districts across our Commonwealth,” Holmes wrote, describing the administration’s use of the 2020 numbers as “disingenuous.”

In a virtual press conference hosted by the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, Roberto Jiménez Rivera called the enrollment decrease “artificial,” cautioning, “We still expect those kids to be back in school next year, but unless we fix the counts, we’re going to have to educate hundreds and thousands of additional students without getting any of the resources to do so.”

Baker’s spending plan — which has a smaller bottom line than this year’s $45.9 billion state budget — includes $5.48 billion in Chapter 70 funds to local schools, an increase of almost $198 million. In total, it contains $246.3 million in new spending associated with a school funding reform law passed in 2019, the implementation of which was put on hold last year amid the pandemic.

Education Secretary James Peyser said the administration’s education priorities for the spring and next school year include getting more students back into classrooms safely and mobilizing state, local and federal resources to provide students with extra help and expanded learning time after a difficult year involving, in many cases, long stretches of remote schooling coupled with the stresses of COVID-19.

“At the end of the day, this is really going to be a multi-year recovery effort,” Elementary and Secondary Commissioner Jeff Riley said. “This is not something that’s going to be fixed, in my opinion, over the summer or even into the fall of next year.”

Sen. Jason Lewis, who serves as both co-chair of the Education Committee and assistant vice chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, brought up the enrollment churn, asking Peyser and Riley to “comment on the thinking about not holding harmless or making any adjustment to the enrollment in the Chapter 70 formula” for school funding.

“The complexity of using something other than the actual headcount is kind of mind-boggling,” Peyser replied, saying there was no way to know how 2022 enrollment would play out for individual districts and families and no way to make an adjustment that would treat all districts fairly.

He said the way the state approaches school aid means that no district will lose money because of a downturn in enrollment — rather, they would maintain the same base level of funding — and that Baker’s budget proposes a minimum aid level of an extra $30 per student. Federal relief packages also will steer significant dollars to Massachusetts schools, he said.

“At the margins, there are some districts that may come out a little bit on the short end,” Peyser said. “The commissioner said earlier that he has, in the past, already used some of his federal aid to make sure that every district receives some federal aid, even if they weren’t really in line to get much under the federal government’s distribution formula, so all of those things combined means if there if is a problem or an issue, I think it will be for a relatively small number of districts and at the margins, and there may be some targeted approach we want to take either with federal money or state dollars to address those particular issues but I would caution against trying to go back to an old enrollment number and assuming that would treat everyone equitably.”

Lewis responded by noting that while districts will not lose money because of drops in their student population, they’re not in line for the same funding boost they’d stand to receive if held harmless for this year’s enrollment drops, a figure he said lands “probably somewhere around $120 million” in additional Chapter 70 funds statewide.

Massachusetts Teachers Association Merrie Najimy offered a similar estimate, putting the total at $122 million and saying the level of funding Baker proposes “will be insufficient to meet the needs of the actual numbers of students enrolled next year.”

Informal data collected by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents last fall shows that of about 30,000 students who are no longer enrolled, around one-third are currently in new home-school environments, one-third are kindergarteners held out of public school for a year, and one-third enrolled in private or parochial schools. Mary Bourque, the association’s director of government affairs and former Chelsea superintendent, shared those figures with the committee and said the superintendents group expects “the majority” of those 30,000 students will return to public schools in September.

Without adjusting the fiscal 2022 budget, districts will not have the resources to hire additional teachers to respond to anticipated larger class sizes next year, Bourque said.

Fall River Superintendent Matt Malone, who served as education secretary under Gov. Deval Patrick, told Lewis over Twitter that the enrollment numbers were “the big issue.”

“We respectfully need relief here. These kids will be back and it is a travesty of policy to not include them – certainly something @MassEducation did NOT get right in FY22 Budget,” he wrote.

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