A panel of municipal officials testified at a fiscal 2020 state budget hearing in Fall River on March 18. Testifying were Norwell Selectman and MMA President Ellen Allen, MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith, New Bedford Chief Financial Officer Ari Sky and Northfield Town Administrator Andrea Llamas.

At a fiscal 2020 state budget hearing in Fall River on March 18, a panel of municipal officials testified in support of increased funding for the main municipal aid account and for major reform and expansion of key school finance programs.

Norwell Selectman and MMA President Ellen Allen and MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith asked the House and Senate Ways and Means committees to support Gov. Charlie Baker’s recommendation of $1.13 billion for Unrestricted General Government Aid and to change and expand on his school finance initiatives. Also testifying on the municipal panel were New Bedford Chief Financial Officer Ari Sky and Northfield Town Administrator Andrea Llamas, who serves as president of the Small Town Administrators of Massachusetts.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Education Secretary Jim Peyser kicked off the day-long hearing with a presentation on the governor’s school funding proposal for fiscal 2020 and related school finance legislation that Gov. Baker filed in January. Polito and Peyser also answered questions from budget committee members.

The MMA panel urged House and Senate budget committee members to update and increase Chapter 70 funding consistent with the 2015 recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission and to rework how charter schools are financed to reduce the fiscal damage to local public school systems. The MMA called on the Legislature to improve upon the governor’s recommendations, using as a base the PROMISE Act legislation filed in the House (H. 586) and Senate (S. 238) as well as other school finance bills and proposals.

Echoing the Foundation Budget Review Commission, the MMA called for updating the Chapter 70 foundation budget factors for special education and health benefits for active and retired school employees. The updates would include enhanced and reworked increments for low-income students and English Language Learners.

The MMA also supported the proposal in the governor’s recommendation to enhance the guidance and psychological services factor in Chapter 70 to reflect new best practices related to school safety and student social and emotional health.

The MMA asked the Legislature to create a school funding circuit breaker to mitigate harm done to local public schools by the state’s method of financing charter schools. The MMA testified that the PROMISE Act includes a thoughtful “district student aid floor” that would better integrate Chapter 70 and charter school finance and lessen the damage done by the current method. The MMA has also filed a separate bill (H. 418) to reform charter school finance.

Even with partial implementation of many of the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations in the governor’s budget plan, 57 percent of school districts would receive only minimum aid – set at $20 per student – as their fiscal 2020 increase. The MMA recommended that annual minimum aid increases be at least $100 per student in order to avoid the damage that would hit so many schools across the state.

The MMA panel noted that school finance is complicated, with disparate impacts across different types of districts and in different parts of the state. Even with strategic reforms, far too many school districts could be left behind. The MMA asked that provisions be added to assist rural school districts.

The MMA also asked that the Legislature fully fund other municipal and school aid accounts, including the special education circuit breaker, reimbursements for student transportation, and the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program.

The March 18 budget hearing was chaired by Rep. Carole Fiola of Fall River and Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester.

The series of fiscal 2020 state budget hearings are scheduled to wrap up in early April. The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to release its budget recommendation in mid-April.

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