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School stimulus cash handed to some, not all

'Winners' rejoice; others see unfair system

By Linda K. Wertheimer and Terri Schwartz
Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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Peabody and Salem, neighboring North Shore school systems, faced a similar predicament a few weeks ago: Both had roughly $3 million budget deficits; both talked about laying off teachers as the only option.

In a day, everything changed. Governor Deval Patrick announced that he would divide $168 million in federal stimulus money among half of the state's school systems. Salem, slated to receive $3.2 million, cheered. Peabody, due to receive nothing, was devastated.

The same winner-loser scenario is playing out across the Commonwealth, where some high-wealth areas like Hingham, Needham, and Wellesley are beneficiaries, and some school systems with lower-income populations such as Boston and Randolph are not. Lexington and Concord, both higher income, also receive nothing, while the roughly 12,000-student urban system of Lawrence is among the biggest winners, receiving $6.7 million.

Who wins and who loses is based on the state's complicated funding formula, which takes into account factors such as property value, personal income, and changes in student enrollment.

The distribution still requires legislative approval, but Patrick's intent was to use the federal money to help the 166 school districts that have not yet reached the state's minimum spending level on education. But his March 19 announcement, which came weeks before most school systems must submit budgets for cities and towns, was greeted with as much consternation from those left out as delight from those that benefited. Some mayors and school leaders said they thought the proposed distribution was unfair.

"There is an unprecedented level of angst, anger, and anxiety among the communities," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "They don't know all of the money they're going to get, and they have a short time frame on when they have to budget it."

The state has roughly $800 million to $900 million in federal stimulus funds to give to K-12 and higher education during the next 27 months, including $280 million for special education. The $168 million has provoked the most debate, though, because the state had discretion on how much money to distribute. Some districts wondered why Patrick did not propose using more of the federal money to help a greater number of districts.

Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville said the state had good reason for not dipping into more of the federal funds this year.

"We're trying to steward this conservatively because it has to last 27 months," he said.

Reville said the distribution of the money is fair, given the shortage of state revenues.

"It's some help, it's not a panacea," he said. "It doesn't solve our long-term revenue problem in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but it enables us to proceed for the next couple of years without dramatic cutbacks in programs."

Such explanations are little comfort to Peabody, a district of 6,500 students. Peabody may lay off 20 teachers, cut some high school programs, close one of its eight elementary schools, and increase athletic and transportation fees. Meanwhile, Salem, with roughly 4,500 students, hopes to expand programs, add staff, and purchase materials and supplies that it could not afford the last several years with the boost from the federal money.

"I was disheartened," said David McGeney, a Peabody School Committee member, of Patrick's proposal. "My initial reaction was it had to be a misprint. When we lay off people in our system, it's going to be hard to understand how getting zero assistance was a fair formula."

Salem has made numerous cuts in recent years, including reducing the number of specialists in art, music, and physical education. Superintendent William Cameron is hopeful that the Legislature will approve Patrick's proposal and give the system the latitude to add programs and bring back students sent elsewhere for special education services.

Lawrence had proposed cutting as many as 120 to 140 employees unless the teachers union agreed to a wage freeze. The stimulus money made discussion about a wage freeze moot, said Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan, also the School Committee chairman. The city, though, still has financial woes and is asking firefighters, police, and public works employees to take a 10-day furlough.

Frank McLaughlin, the Lawrence Teachers Union president, said the teaching staff's concerns have been alleviated.

"We don't have to worry about getting laid off. We don't have to worry about a wage freeze," he said.

On the South Shore, Plymouth now will be able to back off plans to cut as many as 100 teachers with its $2.5 million boost. The school system, however, will continue to grapple with a $2 million budget gap, Superintendent Gary Maestas said.

Still, Maestas is more content than Lou Rodrigues, superintendent of three small school systems near Fall River. Rodrigues oversees the Freetown Elementary School District; its one school received $131. Spread that among the school's 507 students, and each gets about 25 cents.

"We'll go out and buy some stamps," Rodrigues joked. "I don't know if I can get any with that anymore, but I'll buy the lifetime ones."

The district will have to lay off five to 10 teachers in the elementary school.

"It's at the point now where you're just eating your young," he said of budget cuts. "It doesn't make sense anymore."

Dedham, which received no stimulus money, faces a $500,000 deficit out of a $32.3 million budget, said Tracy Driscoll, chairwoman of the School Committee for the 2,900-student district. The town has a huge commercial tax base, but has never passed an override, Driscoll said. Since 2001, Dedham has laid off staff annually and increased class sizes. It may have to cut as many as 29 positions next school year.

"What's hard is you know you're cutting, and you just don't see any relief in sight," Driscoll said.

Lexington received nothing, but its budget gap is just $275,000 out of $66 million. Schools Superintendent Paul Ash said he is not upset about receiving nothing, but is perturbed that Needham, Wellesley, and Westwood will get some of the $168 million, and Boston will not.

"The equity of the state's funding system has been broken for a very, very long time," Ash said. "This stimulus money just points out glaringly the question, 'Why are some districts getting money when others desperately need it?' "

Andover School Committee chairwoman Debra Silberstein agreed, noting that her school system was left wanting. It received $182,526, but still has a $3.2 million shortfall. Andover is considering cutting 50 to 55 employees and reducing programs, including elementary health classes and some instrumental music classes for third- and fourth-graders.

This year's federal allotment is only a temporary fix, said Jonathan Chinitz, chairman of the Acton-Boxborough Regional School Committee.

"This is not a one-year problem," Chinitz said. "The question is, is it a two-year problem, a three-year problem? Nobody knows. Yes, we're getting the stimulus money, but the stimulus money will eventually disappear."

Linda K. Wertheimer can be reached at wertheimer@globe.com.

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