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Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
At a budget hearing on municipal and school aid held by the House and Senate Ways and Means committees on March 16, the MMA advocated for increased funding in a number of key accounts for cities and towns.
Unrestricted General Government Aid
Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposal released in January (House 1) would increase Unrestricted General Government Aid at the same rate as the projected growth of state revenues: 3.5%. The increase amounts to $39.5 million, bringing the account to nearly $1.17 billion.
The MMA asked the Legislature to continue this revenue-sharing partnership by funding municipalities at the same rate as the growth in state revenues.
The landmark Student Opportunity Act of 2019 calls for phasing in an additional $1.5 billion in school aid over a seven-year period. The pandemic postponed implementation in the fiscal 2021 state budget, and House 1 would fund the first year of the seven-year schedule in fiscal 2022.
The MMA, joined by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, urged the Legislature to consider funding essentially the first and second years of the Student Opportunity Act so that critical aid to school districts would not remain a year behind schedule. Doing so would increase the Chapter 70 education aid request by approximately $350 million over fiscal 2021.
Because student enrollment dropped by more than 30,000 statewide during the public health emergency, and the majority of students are expected to return to public schools this fall, the MMA also urged legislators to use student enrollment data from Oct. 1, 2019, rather than Oct. 1, 2020 (or whichever is higher), when calculating Chapter 70 aid. Since using the higher enrollment figure will increase the size of a district’s foundation budget, and could therefore increase the district’s required local contribution, the MMA asked that legislators be mindful of these proposed changes.
Under the governor’s budget, a majority of districts statewide would remain minimum-aid-only, receiving just a $30 per-student increase over last year’s aid. The MMA strongly advocated for $100 per student for minimum aid districts.
The governor’s Chapter 70 recommendation would make a significant change in how cities and towns can meet their required local contributions for fiscal 2022. Municipalities would be able to use up to 75% of the total grant awarded to the local school district through the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Emergency Relief program known as ESSER II to fund a part of the increase in its local contribution requirement under Chapter 70, but not more than the increase in required local contribution in fiscal 2022 relative to fiscal 2021. This is a new temporary provision that is explained on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education school finance website.
The DESE website also has fiscal 2022 Chapter 70 aid and net school spending requirements under the governor’s budget for each city, town and regional school district, as well as preliminary fiscal 2022 charter school assessments and reimbursements.
House 1 would fund the first year of the Student Opportunity Act’s three-year phase-in formula for the charter school reimbursement account. The MMA is urging the Legislature to fund essentially years one and two of the law to remain on the intended schedule to mitigate Chapter 70 losses from public school districts to charter schools.
The MMA also contends that the Student Opportunity Act’s reimbursement formula would not fix the serious flaws in the charter school finance system. Charter schools will continue to divert a high percentage of Chapter 70 funds away from many municipally operated school districts, and place greater strain on the districts that serve the vast majority of public schoolchildren.
The MMA asked legislators to consider a “circuit breaker” to protect the school districts most negatively impacted by the charter funding system.
Rural school assistance
The Student Opportunity Act provides for a commission to study the long-term fiscal health of rural school districts, but it did not address the unique financial and operational challenges faced by rural districts. The MMA asked legislators to adequately fund the Rural School Assistance Program.
Special Education Circuit Breaker
The MMA asked legislators to fully fund the state’s share of eligible educational costs, with the schedule included in the Student Opportunity Act, which includes transportation expenses as an eligible cost.
The governor’s budget would reduce funding for both regional school transportation reimbursements and reimbursements for transporting homeless students to their original school district, as mandated under the McKinney-Vento Act. Reimbursements for transportation of out-of-district vocational students remains significantly underfunded at $250,000 in House 1. The MMA asked legislators to fully fund these accounts.
The governor’s budget would level-fund payments-in-lieu-of-taxes at $31 million, which the MMA argued would be a significant hardship for many smaller, rural communities with large amounts of state-owned land. This is a key account due to the major impact that PILOT payments have on budgets in a number of small communities. The MMA asked that the Legislature follow the guidance in the state auditor’s recently released report suggesting that the line item should be $45 million.