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MWDN: Spilka: state needs new ways to evaluate, fund public ed

September 16, 2009
September 16, 2009
By John Hilliard, The MetroWest Daily News
The state’s methods of determining how much financial aid schools receive – and how it’s paid for – need to be updated to meet the needs of students and taxpayers, Ashland’s state senator told the Daily News yesterday.

State Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, filed a bill that would study what resources are needed to meet state educational standards, which could affect the amount of state aid districts get each year.

The measure would establish a committee of legislators and members of the state’s executive branch to conduct that study, which she said could take about a year to complete. Spilka said it has been nearly 20 years since the state last studied this area, and she said she has the support of nearly 50 legislators for her bill.

A second bill she filed would call on lawmakers to look for alternatives to local property taxes as the funding source for school systems.

“We need to talk about taking the burden of (supporting) public education off our property taxes,” she said.

Spilka testified in support of her bills to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education yesterday afternoon.

State financial support for a school system is based on a foundation budget that establishes the minimum spending level to meet educational standards, using data like enrollment and student demographics.

A community’s share of education expenses is determined by property values and personal income levels of residents, and the rest is supposed to be covered by state financial aid.

Most communities spend more on education than required by state guidelines: the state’s K-12 education department estimated in fiscal 2008 that taxpayers spent as much as 25 percent more than the roughly $5 billion required for schools that year.

In fiscal 2010, there wasn’t enough aid money to cover the difference between foundation budgets and local contributions in every district, plus every district saw a 2 percent cut from the previous year.

Adam Blumer, the chairman of the Framingham School Committee, said he welcomed any studies of state education financing that make the process more equitable and predictable for local school leaders.

In Framingham’s case, the town went for several years without enough state school aid, and he said Spilka and his mother, the late state Rep. Deborah Blumer, put the town on a five-year plan to “catch up” Framingham’s school aid levels. But budget cuts have stalled that effort, he said.

This year, MetroWest’s largest school district got nearly $16.8 million in state assistance, along with more than $2.5 million from the federal stimulus. The latter figure is about $1 million lower than what was originally promised to the town’s school system when the stimulus was first announced.

“I would hope the study would produce something that is predictable,” said Blumer.

Milford School Committee Chairman Will Kingkade said the state needs to update how it determines foundation budgets for schools, particularly after federal stimulus aid dries up. Milford got about $1.9 million in federal aid, allowing that district to rehire 11 of 16 people that had been laid off.

Nancy Burdick, chairwoman of the Hopkinton schools, said she’s been talking to a school board official in Westborough about inequities in state education aid. She said officials may have to consider the possibility they could see a reduction in aid if there are changes to how it is assessed.

“You have to be open to the idea of what’s taken in to calculate” education aid, said Burdick.

(John Hilliard can be reached at 508-626-4449, John.Hilliard@cnc.com or framinghamschools.blogspot.com.)

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