Friday, June 25, 1999
Debate still swirls around Minuteman budget and Choice program
Some things never change; the timeless flow of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers to the sea and the return of mosquitoes to Carlisle in the spring. So it is with the Minuteman Techical High School Regional School Committee. Attend a meeting every six months and the same members are still fighting over the same issues. Unlike the debate over participation in the Choice program, however, the rivers eventually reach an end.
The average annual cost per pupil at Minuteman is approximately $14,000, but the state has mandated that only $5,000 be paid for students admitted under the Choice plan, which allows a school district to accept students from outside the district to fill available seats. Minuteman's member towns, such as Carlisle, must subsidize the remaining $9,000 and that's why they end up paying in excess of $20,000 per student for a $14,000 education. In response to this discrepancy, the Minuteman school committee voted on February 2 to phase out the Choice program.
Prompted 1996 petition
Oddly enough, the latest skirmish over Choice tuition traces back to Carlisle's petition to withdraw from the Minuteman district in 1996. At that time, the Minuteman school committee chair Nyles Barnert of Lexington, had recommended rejection of Carlisle's proposal. He praised Carlisle for having the creative idea of withdrawing from the region and then attempting to send non-resident students under the $5,000 Choice loophole in "a law that the town properly resents." However, Barnert felt that if the plan were approved for one, two, or three communities, it would begin to raise per pupil costs dramatically for the remaining member communities.
Barnert stated that major industry leaders have asked Carlisle and other towns to have patience and join them in seeking correction of state laws rather than pursue a path of destroying quality programs for youngsters. He revealed that Minuteman is using approximately half of its Choice revenue to reduce assessments rather than to directly service non-residents. Then Barnert made the statement that triggered the latest round of accusations. "The Choice inequity is not yet having a strong negative fiscal impact on our towns."
Bill to raise Choice tuition
State Representative James Marzilli (D - Arlington) attended the May 18 Minuteman school committee meeting and quickly became embroiled in the latest legislative controversy to resolve Choice. A bill, known as H-2103, working its way through the legislature, attempts to raise the tuition for Choice from $5,000 to $12,500. Minuteman added an amendment that states the committee can judge economies of scale and use revenue to reduce member assessments. Marzelli emphasized that money cannot be appropriated through a piece of legislation. "It's unconstitutional and wouldn't do a thing to help this district," he asserted.
"The House finished its budget two weeks agothis is dead," declared Marzilli. He claimed that the Minuteman amendment was not attached to the bill because the Woburn representative, Carol Donovan, deliberately did not file the amendment and was opposed to it. (This was later denied by Donovan). Marzilli advised that Minuteman go back to the bill that was put on the governor's desk a year ago which the governor vetoed. This would have increased tuition paid by non-member communities up to the Chapter 74 level and would use that money to reduce member town assessments. Increased revenue from non-member districts would help member towns. "If we could go back to that, it would be fine, but it will be difficult to convince the legislature to support this bill again," said Marzilli.
Chairman Bob Wiltse asked Marzilli, "Why weren't hearings held on this bill if you were so confident this would benefit Minuteman?" This is where the Barnert reply to Carlisle's petition becomes important. Marzilli replied that if the past chairman (Barnert) of the Minuteman school committee could state that there is no problem with Choice while the school committee insisted on overassessing its member towns, why bother?
Barnert was dragged before the school committee at their June 15 meeting and asked to explain his statement about Choice in March of 1996. Barnert was understandably wary of getting involved in the dogfight, but did state that he was never happy with the unfairness of the assessments. He had pushed to raise Choice from $5,000 to $9,000 without success. After some additional interrogation produced no further confessions, committee member Sandy Ford of Carlisle had heard enough. "This is silliness," he exclaimed. "That's a three-and-a-half year old memo. Let's get on with it!"
Repeal of Section 126
Meanwhile, Senator Pam Resor (D-Acton) is planning to propose a repeal of Section 126, a change supported by the Minuteman superintendent. Section 126 of the FY99 state budget caps net school spending for regional vocational school districts at 150 percent of their foundation budgets, thus alleviating high assessments for member communities. If the required net school spending exceeds that cap, then minimum contributions of the members are to be reduced proportionately. A "foundation budget" is the sum of the payroll, non-salary expenses, and allotments for professional development, expanded programs, extraordinary maintenance, books and equipment. The base year for calculating the foundation budget is fiscal year 1993. For fiscal years thereafter, the foundation is adjusted for enrollment and inflation.
Charles Lyons, selectman from Arlington, sent a letter to the State House opposing any attempt by Resor to change Section 126. He stated that the only school impacted by Section 126 is Minuteman because it is the only regional vocational school district where the net school spending is more than 150 percent of foundation costs. "Without Section 126, Minuteman's net school spending for next year would be $21,244 per pupil," stated Lyons.
Recently, Minuteman gained support from two-thirds of its member municipalities (14 out of 16) for its FY2000 budget. Lyons states, "That budget far exceeds the limitations imposed by Section 126. All Section 126 does is require Minuteman to acquire two-thirds support from member communities for amounts beyond 150 percent of foundation." Lyons believes that the district could charge its member towns 210 percent of foundation costs if Pam Resor's proposed amendment were enacted into law.
This prompted Minuteman school superintendent Ron Fitzgerald to fire off a memo on June 7 to Tom Birmingham, president of the Senate, and Tom Finneran, speaker of the House, stating, "Arlington officials and a small number of others have been campaigning to ensure that bills like amended H-2103, that would correct the Commonwealth's Choice funding program, do not pass, so that the excuse for the discriminatory Section 126 would not disappear." He claims many of Lyons's statements are false and refutes them on a line-by-line basis.
Fitzgerald completes his memo by urging legislators to look carefully at the anti-Minuteman campaign promoted by Arlington and to give their strong support to both amended H-2103 and repeal of Section 126. "Then a school whose staff has worked very successfully serving many youngsters from many towns can be protected until modifications in reform legislation can be made on the basis of careful study and public hearings conducted by the joint committee on education," he concluded.
School committee member Sally Bobbit of Lincoln ended the May 18 meeting by commenting that she came on board to deal with kids and education. "For several years now, the personal financial tangles of the towns have made this an unworkable group," she stated. She urged members to put the kids first, stating you can't put one town's needs ahead of the education of all the kids. It's doubtful that many were listening. They were already planning their next battles.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito