Chelsea School Superintendent Mary Bourque and Chelsea City Manager Thomas Ambrosino were two panelists Tuesday night at Malden High School during a forum calling on legislators to overhaul the state’s current educational funding model to ensure equity for all students, especially those in low-income areas.
During the state’s last legislative session a bill by State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Jamaica Plain) would have recalculated the cost to educate each student in public school districts known as the ‘foundation budget’ and poured millions of dollars into school over the next several years.
However that bill failed and educators like Bourque are calling this mechanism the state uses to provide students with equitable access to educational opportunities ‘obsolete’ and must be revised to meet the expectations of today’s economy.
Because the state has not updated its education funding formula since 1993 to reflect districts’ real health insurance and special education costs, the amount of aid being provided to cover those costs is too small.
To compensate, many districts like Chelsea end up using money that would otherwise have supported core education programs—including Regular Ed. Teachers, Materials & Technology, and Professional Development. This also results in dramatic cuts in other areas of education.
“The time is now because we have no more time left,” said Bourque at Tuesday night’s meeting. “There will be more cuts because we don’t know where the money will come from. We cut all of our after school programs…elementary (afterschool) programs two years ago and middle school after school programs last year. It’s time to make changes to the formula and we need to make the formula work for us. It is time to save the futures of our students and open those doors to the future. We can not afford to have our students go through another year of cuts in their school system.”
The problem for low income school districts like Chelsea is there is a growing equity gap between schools in Chelsea and schools in more affluent areas of the state. When faced with such shortfalls, high-wealth districts can often draw on additional, local revenue. Lower-wealth districts like Chelsea, however, are generally unable to do so and the consequence is that they spend less on resources that are critically important to the quality of education students receive.
“I do think there a lot of school systems in a financial crisis my expectation is that if this is not addressed in this legislative session we are going to have a lot of tough decisions to make like Brockton did where they had to lay off a significant amount of teachers,” said Ambrosino. “We are living in good economic times. State revenues have been running above estimates for quite some time so it’s time for the legislature to use this good fortune and make education a priority once again and invest in education. This is not easy and requires a lot of money so I don’t envy any legislators that have to work on this but budgets are all about priorities. A budget, simply put, is a policy statement on your (the legislation’s) priorities and the legislature once again has to make education a priority. If it doesn’t there will be too many ‘have nots’ in the Commonwealth once again.”
Estimates by lawmakers to fix the budget formula could be as high as $1 billion with Gov. Charlie Baker vowing to put forth his own proposal to fix the broken system after the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a solution last year.
However, Bourque said something has to be done and done soon because Chelsea is running a $7.4 million school budget gap between what the state covers for education and what the Chelsea School District is actually spending to educate students.
“Morally obligated to meet our students needs and provide for them so they can be successful and have futures,” said Bourque. “Sometimes, as a superintendent, I feel like we’ve been living on a ‘fixed budget’ since 1993 and that fixed income is not working. The result is that we are stretched too thin.”