By School Committeeman Roberto Jimenez
Last week, the State Legislature unveiled the initial draft for the 2021-2022 state budget. I was happy to see that they had fixed Governor Baker’s budget proposal, which did not get us on track to fully fund the Student Opportunity Act (SOA). Signed in 2019, the SOA is supposed to infuse over $2 billion per year into Massachusetts schools by 2027, but due to COVID-19 these funds were delayed. The State Legislature’s proposal technically gets us back on track, but also leaves us with a big pandemic-related problem: there are over 31,000 students missing from the budget, resulting in a $90 million hole in the statewide schools budget.
Every year, school budgets are based on the enrollment numbers from the previous academic year. Due to various pandemic-related reasons, many students left our public schools last year, and many Pre-K and Kindergarten students delayed their start in school. However, we expect that most of these students will be back in school next fall. If we don’t count them in our budget, our resources will be further stretched, as we will still educate them, but without the funding to which they are legally entitled.
Thankfully, the proposal does acknowledge this is a problem, and allocates $40 million in a separate fund to account for the enrollment drop. There are unfortunately two problems: (1) $40 million isn’t enough and (2) we won’t know how much we are getting until after Thanksgiving, which doesn’t allow us to make long-term investments (for example, hiring teachers) in time for the school year. Two budget amendments can fix this: Amendment #1090, which would allow for this money to be disbursed earlier, and Amendment #1147, which increases the amount to $120 million. Please reach out to your State Rep and ask them to support these amendments.
Some politicians claim that our federal aid money is enough to support our schools, but that money is for the new costs the pandemic has brought to Chelsea, such as COVID testing. The Student Opportunity Act money is to fix the chronic underfunding our students have experienced for decades. We need both and Massachusetts has the resources to do so.