Friday, February 1, 2008
Fargo, Atkins and RSC check math behind state aid to education
State Senator Susan Fargo and State Representative Cory Atkins attended the January 22 Regional School Committee (RSC) meeting and answered a variety of questions. State aid was the predominant issue. Fargo said, "The costs of special education are mounting." Fitzgerald said, "It's a major issue for us. It has clearly stretched our budget, and we have had to cut spending in other areas." Atkins and Fargo did not give much hope of increased state aid for education. Fargo said, "It's going to be a tight [budget] year."
Atkins said the Speaker of the House does not want to raise taxes, but without additional revenues, "you can't make more out of less." She also noted that urban areas had a greater influence on the state's decision making than suburban areas.
Atkins thought that state aid to communities would not increase without the advent of casinos, being proposed by Governor Patrick. Atkins predicted, "We will have casinos." However, the question was raised how the state would allocate any additional revenues. Fargo added that the current casino proposal does not have money going back to cities and towns.
Voters chose tax cuts
Pointing out the need for more state revenue, Atkins questioned the crowd, "Will you support raising the income tax? Will you support raising the sales tax? There is no political will to raise taxesCan we tax other ways in communities?"
RSC member Peter Fischelis commented on unfunded state mandates. "You're just passing the buck to towns." Atkins reminded everyone that in 2000, the people of this state voted overwhelmingly for a tax cut. She added that her priorities were to find more funding for: Chapter 70 money, local aid, special education, the circuit breaker fund and transportation. She agreed that not fully funding these has caused a state-wide crisis.
Why not matching funds?
Atkins also suggested that incentives should be set up to reward people for finding cheaper ways of accomplishing the same ends. Fitzgerald suggested that the Community Preservation Act (CPA), where the state matches money raised locally, should be used as a model. Why not have the state match funds raised by a town for education?
CCHS building project
The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) was also discussed. RSC member Jerry Wedge told the two legislators that Concord-Carlisle needs a new high school, and if that project is not started soon, the two towns will need to spend a fair amount of money to keep the old building going. Atkins was extremely clear in her answer, "The MSBA is going for much simpler school designs." One percent of the sales tax is used for building schools and the sales tax receipts are down. She said that Chelmsford had wanted a $100 million new high school. They got a $30 million renovation and they are quite happy with that. "I invite you to go to Chelmsford. The standard has been set." Fargo agreed, "What a great job they have done! You should go see it."
RSC Chair Michael Fitzgerald asked if the regional school district was penalized since both towns were looking for funding for elementary schools at the same time. Atkins replied, "It's a political question."
Regionalization and School Choice
Fitzgerald asked if the state is looking to regionalize more schools. Atkins replied, "I hear 'regionalization' everywhere," but added that transportation costs related to regionalization send up a red flag in her mind.
Atkins advocated School Choice, which allows a limited number of students from other districts to come in and fill up classes that are not at the maximum. Those children bring tuition with them. She used the Acton-Boxborough (AB) regional school system as an example. "AB took kids from Maynard and made up shortfalls in the budget." With an already high student population at CCHS, Fitzgerald was not keen on the idea. He noted that once students are admitted, there was no way to send them back when a class goes over its maximum.
Special Ed costs
Fitzgerald suggested that families' healthcare insurance should pay for special needs. Atkins said that something like that was happening in Minnesota but nothing similar is being proposed here. She said it was tricky here due to the new public health reform. The attitude was that insurance companies had been talked into the new public health reform and could not be pushed to contribute further, such as for medical needs that are now being picked up by public education. Fargo said, "Insurance companies are making money. They have a very strong lobby at the State House. We can look at what other states are doing. There are networks on what other states are doing in the policy areaWe do pay attention."
Shortage of educators
"There are not enough people going into teaching," Atkins said, adding, "We haven't had a real focus on that in some years." Fargo thought that incentive programs are needed to encourage people to go into education administration. She said, "We're talking a resource problemWe're a brainy stateOnce we get away from being an innovative state, we're gone." Fitzgerald noted that for 75% of the towns in Massachusetts, the average tenure for their superintendents was three years. Fargo suggested an education stimulus program.
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