Over the next few weeks, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will finalize the data underlying the Chapter 70 education aid distribution for next year and begin to explore options for tweaking the distribution formula. Over the past few years, I’ve been particularly concerned to influence the Chapter 70 formula to address the shortfall that Watertown has experienced. In Fiscal 2013, Watertown was receiving only 12.4% of its foundation budget in Chapter 70 aid, well below the target level of 17.5% set in the 2006 education aid reforms. In that year, that percentage gap meant that Watertown was underfunded by $1.38 million.
Watertown was not alone in being short-changed. The fiscal crunch of the recession prevented the state from meeting its commitments to increase underfunded communities. Every fall, Representatives Hecht and Lawn and I engaged with the Governor’s Administration and Finance team to make sure that they understood the larger issue and how it affects our communities. The Patrick administration did make considerable progress on the issue over the last few fiscal years. By FY2016, Watertown and other short-changed communities were lying much closer to their appropriate levels on the aid curve.
However, Watertown is still about $323,000 short of where it should be. (Belmont is closer, only $90,000 short, and Boston lies above the curve.) This fall we will continue our efforts to bring communities that are below the curve up to their target levels. The Governor and his Administration and Finance team will have the final call on what the distribution looks like in his budget draft that will come out in January. Because it is a significant cost item to fix all communities that are under the curve — approximately $45.6 million — it is very desirable for the Governor’s draft to solve the problem. Although the legislature has the power to adjust the distribution, it is difficult to reallocate the money to make an adjustment of that magnitude.
In the budget process, I always make special education aid a top priority, as it benefits all of my communities — Belmont, Watertown and Boston — more than other programs do. The Special Education Circuit Breaker allocation is based on actual out-of-district special education expenditures. It is not weighted towards communities with limited ability to fund education. So, since all of my communities are relatively healthy economically, one dollar of additional spending on the special education formula benefits them more than one dollar of additional spending on the Chapter 70 formula, which is primarily designed to benefit the communities with more limited resources. Over the last few years, we have been able to fund the Special Education formula at or near its maximum statutory level, up substantially from a low after the recession. Making sure this account keeps up with cost growth will remain a top priority. I will also push to address the under-recognition of the cost of special education identified by the Foundation Budget Review Commission.
Watertown has uniquely high spending in the special education context, perhaps as a result of families choosing to locate near the world-renowned Perkins school in Watertown. Representative Hecht developed special language for communities with extraordinary spending which I have fought to fund at a high level in the Senate Budget. In the FY16 budget, the Senate adopted an amendment raising funding for this language to $500,000. I will continue to press for strong funding of this language in Fiscal 2017.
The education aid issue which most directly benefits Boston is the partial reimbursement to district schools that lose education aid as a result of students leaving to go to Charter Schools. I have also made this a budget priority and have co-sponsored the amendments offered by Senator Chiang Diaz to raise this item.
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