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Districts expecting less state education money

Cuts likely despite COVID-related costs

Morgan C. Mullings
Districts expecting less state education money
While a reduction in expected state education funding has many districts worried, Boston Public Schools are not expecting budget cuts this year. BANNER FILE PHOTO

Governor Charlie Baker announced Thursday that Massachusetts schools will reopen in the fall under one of three possible scenarios – a full return with social distancing, partial remote teaching, or fully remote.

“We are not out of the woods on this virus, so we need to live with it,” said Lieutenant Gov. Karyn Polito at Thursday’s press conference. To the Baker administration, that means making sure that as many students as possible head back to classrooms, and that educators prioritize developing in-person plans.

Educators now grapple with the concern that they may not be ready to teach fully in-person. Beth Kontos, President of the American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts, said that things like bus monitors, extra workers to sanitize, extra devices for remote learning, and Wi-Fi for students are costs that school systems are not prepared for. In a roundtable with Representative David LeBoeuf of Worcester, she said, “The bathrooms are not up to speed. Is the water always at 100 degrees? No. Do we always have enough soap? No, we don’t. And it’s all funding. And that was before pandemic.”

Kontos urged education officials to think about the amount of time that will be allocated to hygiene that wasn’t before. She also added that schools in Boston specifically do not look like schools in towns with more state funding, and personal protective equipment (PPE) is still not easily accessible. They don’t all have outdoor spaces, or enough square footage to distance all of the desks three-to-six feet apart. Brian Allen, CFO of Worcester Public Schools added, “We have half of our schools with classrooms in the basement. Some have windows and good air flow, but others may not.”

Kontos says that at this point the responsibility is at the state and federal level – but school districts  in Massachusetts are left in the dark without a state budget for fiscal year 2021. The Student Opportunity Act, signed into law November 2019, promised $1.5 billion to school districts, resulting in a projected budget increase of 35% or more for Boston schools by 2026. That funding now hangs in the balance as legislators wait on possible federal relief for COVID-19-related costs.

“The conversation now is, we need to protect education funding, and the plan is to insulate and hold harmless Chapter 70 funding,” said Sen. Adam Hinds last week. Leaving school funding flat in order to protect it would be contrary to the Student Opportunity Act. The Student Opportunity Act is still the law, but as that funding sits in limbo for the next month or so, BPS may struggle to accommodate an unprecedented school semester in the fall.

“We shouldn’t keep passing the buck,” said Colin Jones, senior policy analyst at Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. “It makes no sense for individual districts and child care providers to be going into a completely out-of-control market for PPE and equipment individually.”

In 2017, BPS reported that their state aid has been decreasing annually. Since 2008, it has decreased by about $180 million.

“Despite the State adding over $850 million since FY08, Boston’s Chapter 70 aid is down by $2 million,” the 2017 report states. In fiscal year 2016, the city spent $157 million more than required, and they reported an increased reliance on property tax revenue to fund schools.

BPS officials are aware of the discussions happening at the state level.

“There are several decisions that may have a negative impact in the short and medium term for Boston,” a BPS spokesperson said in a statement sent to the Banner. “We are collaborating with our city partners, determining how to mitigate any potential negative budget impacts to ensure adequate support for our students and families. We are working to develop plans in response to the state’s recently released fall reopening guidance, and continue to evaluate how to best allocate resources due to the extenuating circumstances presented by the coronavirus emergency.”

The spokesperson noted that Boston’s fiscal year 2021 budget includes a substantial increase in the district’s $1.2 billion budget. While other districts face layoffs, “the transformative BPS budget is an $80 million increase from the current year.”

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