By Seth Daniel
The four top education officials in the state, whether they knew it or not, wandered into the heart of several frustrated school districts on Monday when they appeared for a special Joint Ways & Means Committee hearing on education at Everett High School (EHS).
The hearing, brought to EHS by State Sen. Sal DiDomenico for the second year, was to discuss budgetary issues surrounding several areas of schooling in the state – including elementary and high school education. Nowhere in the state is the funding situation as dire right now as it is in Everett, Chelsea and Revere.
And after the four education chiefs had given their overview of their respective departments, Sen. DiDomenico pushed hard on the four to explain if there is a possibility to fix a funding catastrophe that has come due to a change in the way low-income students are counted in the state.
“In Everett, some of the schools have gone from Level 3 to Level 2 and some are Level 1 schools,” said DiDomenico. “That progress was made over time and is a reflection of funding levels for our low income students doing the calculation the old way. It says now we have 35 percent low income, but in reality we have 70 or 80 percent. The same holds true in Chelsea. Now, when the funding is different that what was expected, upwards of $2 million different, that’s a big cut for these communities.”
The genesis of the change started when the federal Department of Agriculture gave districts the option of serving free lunch to everyone regardless of income status – and in exchange districts wouldn’t have to collect free and reduced lunch data any longer.
Some 15 districts in the state took advantage of that, but many like Revere, Chelsea and Everett, did not. Data collection for free and reduced lunch families was previously self-reported and counted by the districts.
Instead, a new system of direct certification began where students who were already on public assistance programs were the only ones to qualify as ‘economically disadvantaged.’
While communities like Boston and Springfield made out big in the new calculation, districts like Revere, Everett, Chelsea and Lynn lost out big.
For Everett, the foundation budget went down by $2.08 million while the total enrollment grew by 59 students.
In Revere, the foundation budget went down by $2 million and the total enrollment grew by 170 students.
That problem was amplified by Chelsea Supt. Mary Bourque, president of the state Superintendent’s Association, and Revere Supt. Dianne Kelly, who both spoke for the school districts that have been affected the most by the change.
Bourque told the committee that the 10 school districts most negatively affected by the change – which include Everett, Chelsea and Revere most prominently – have lost $61.2 million in funding from their Foundation Budgets.
“This aid is lifeblood in the delivery of education for our Gateway Cities,” said Bourque. “We can’t hope to be successful under these conditions and can’t afford to lose the money. We need your help…Under the Chapter 70 proposal you have before you, all of our students are not being counted, the system is broken, and with it, the promise of education reform. The integrity of the Chapter 70 formula, with its unique ability to ensure equity by counting our most vulnerable populations: special needs, English language learners, and our low-income students, is now compromised. The school districts that serve students where education will make the biggest difference in their future, are being unfairly penalized by a new methodology that is not quite ready to be used for this important purpose.”
State Education Secretary Jim Peyser did not rule out a fix for the problem, though said that they have made adjustments already that have helped the situation.
“We are very committed to understanding this,” he said. “We are also understanding that some of these districts may be by families that are undocumented and do not show up though certain programs we use now. That may be difficult. We’re also committed to figuring out how to make this change work. This different way of counting for low-income students seems to work for the vast majority of districts. That’s not helpful for the six, seven or eight districts where this hasn’t happened.”
Said Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, “There’s no perfect solution to making a transition like this…We don’t pretend that we have the perfect solution at this point.”
DiDomenico said he was very hopeful that there could be a solution because, as it stands now, he said the districts that need the money they most are being hit very hard with this newfound gap in funding – which was essentially meant to help districts by creating less paperwork.
“It looks like the communities that were doing a good job of tracking students – like Everett and Chelsea – have made a substantial effort to make sure these numbers are accurate…but statewide it looks like these communities are getting hit,” he said. “We are taking money that’s expected…It’s unfortunate these communities seeing a lower number are communities that need it the most.”