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School districts strained as state funds fall short

Report finds less spent on instruction

Email|Print| Text size + By Tania deLuzuriaga
Globe Staff / January 23, 2008

Inflation and operating costs have far outpaced state spending on education, putting intense financial pressure on a broad spectrum of school districts across the state, according to a preliminary report released yesterday.

The report, by the Massachusetts Department of Education, found that while healthcare, salaries, and special education program costs have escalated sharply, state funding has remained stagnant since 2003. As a result, cities and towns have had to shoulder a greater portion of the burden, raising property taxes and instituting fees for once-standard services, such as bus transportation and athletics, in order to make ends meet.

The increased costs also mean that school districts are spending a smaller percentage of their budgets on student instruction and salaries for teachers, guidance counselors, and other employees who have direct contact with students, according to the report. On average, districts spent just 51 percent of their budgets on instruction, a decrease of 6 percentage points since 2002.

"Academic expectations have risen, but spending on instructional services has not kept pace," acting Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Nellhaus told the state education board yesterday. "Spending on instruction is being crowded out by spending on other areas."

The report comes as state lawmakers prepare to debate a new budget proposal in what is expected to be a tight fiscal year.

It also comes as state education officials consider taking over Randolph Public Schools, which they declared an underperforming district in November. The district has seen its budget reduced by $12.5 million over the past five years, and voters in that city have rejected four proposed property tax increases during that time. The report warned that under the current state budgeting system, even affluent districts might be on the brink of trouble.

"Today's fiscal pressures appear to be affecting a much broader range of districts, including many middle-class communities that have traditionally taken great pride in the quality of their school systems," the report says.

The report suggests changes are needed in the way the state estimates how much money school districts will need to educate students. On average, school district spending exceeds the state projections by 18 percent, and nearly every district in Massachusetts is spending more than the state budget says it will.

"One conclusion you might reach is that the [state budget formula] isn't providing the kind of education that districts want to provide," Nellhaus said.

At the same time, state aid for school districts has declined over the past five years. In 2002, districts received 34 percent of their funds from the state; four years later it had fallen to 30 percent, while local contributions rose slightly to 58 percent.

Boston has long received the bulk of its education budget from local sources. Last year, the state contributed less than a third of the $667 million the city spent on education.

"The question is, 'What is the fair share?' " said Michael Contompasis, a longtime Boston school official who now works in the city's office of intergovernmental affairs. "The cost of educating young people, I don't think can be met by level funding."

In Cambridge, school officials have spent $91 million on education, or 157 percent more than the state projected last year. But the state budget doesn't include things like all-day kindergarten, after-school programs, or extracurricular activities, said Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn.

"These are things we feel are part of a free and appropriate education," he said.

The city contributed 10 times the amount that the state did for education this fiscal year, but the resources aren't endless. Fowler-Finn anticipates a budget shortfall of $2 million next year.

"We're very fortunate," he said. "The city is very good to us . . . but sure, we have some lean years ahead."

How lean remains to be seen. Governor Deval Patrick said earlier this month that his budget proposal would include a $368 million increase in education funding, including $223 million in direct state aid for schools. But some school officials have already expressed concern that the increased funding won't pass in a year with a projected $1.3 billion budget shortfall. Others have expressed concern over how the money would be distributed.

And though the report highlights clear disparities, state education officials did not make direct recommendations to lawmakers, instead declaring the report was "for informational purposes."

"Just by virtue of doing this report, we're showing that this is of concern," board chairman Paul Reville said. "Based on what we've seen in Randolph and heard anecdotally from other districts, there are significant resource issues."

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