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Casino bill may aid rich schools

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / October 21, 2011

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Schools in some of the state’s wealthiest communities, including Wellesley, Lexington, and Dover, would get millions of dollars in casino money while some of the poorest districts, including Boston, Brockton, and Holyoke, would get nothing under a measure that passed the state Senate last week.

Increased school funding is one of several promises lawmakers have made in selling the casino bill to the public as an opportunity to improve quality of life in Massachusetts with a new source of money.

Both the House and Senate versions of the casino legislation would devote 14 percent of all casino taxes to schools. The House bill would distribute that money statewide, based on a formula Massachusetts uses in doling out money to cities and towns.

But a Senate amendment that was overwhelmingly approved last week would put a priority on distributing the casino money to 165 of the state’s 400 school districts that are considered underfunded, based on a plan the state passed five years ago to help suburban districts. Prior to 2006, many of those communities received very little state support for education.

“Even in the Wellesleys and Westons of this world, they will argue that they’re still losing pieces of their state aid that they should have,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

Though not all of those 165 districts are wealthy, many are, including Belmont, Concord, and Brookline. Some needy communities such as Revere and middle-class communities such as Framingham would also get money. But many of the high-need urban districts - including Springfield, Fall River, and Lawrence - would get nothing.

Representative Martha M. Walz, a Democrat from Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood and a former Education Committee chairwoman, said the state has more pressing education priorities, including special education and early education and care.

“Giving funding to communities that are not our neediest would not be my priority,’’ she said.

The school funding measure is one of several differences between House and Senate versions of a casino bill that passed each chamber over the last five weeks. The sides are expected to begin hashing out their differences in a closed-door conference committee over the next several weeks.

Other differences include a Senate measure to allow bars and restaurants around Massachusetts to reinstate happy hour in order to compete with casinos that would be allowed to dispense free drinks to attract bettors. The House version also includes a measure that would put the state on a path to considering Internet poker, a piece that is not included in the Senate bill.

Though a handful of such issues are commanding modest attention on Beacon Hill, none is considered a deal-breaker for casinos. Both bills include three full casinos in three regions of the state and one slot machine parlor that can be located anywhere.

There is almost complete agreement on the bulk of the regulations and taxes that would affect casinos, with one exception. The Senate bill would tax the slot parlor at 55 percent, instead of 49 percent, devoting extra money to a fund that both versions include to subsidize the horse racing industry.

Senator Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat who has helped lead debate on the bill, said last week after the Senate bill passed that most of the differences are technical and would be “a yawn to the public.’’

“There are no major, major policy differences that can’t be resolved relatively quickly,’’ he said.

The House designated three lawmakers yesterday to serve on a conference committee to work out the differences, and the Senate is expected to follow suit shortly. They are likely to begin meeting soon so they can complete their work before they recess for the year on Nov. 16. Governor Deval Patrick would then have 10 days to sign it or reject it.

Patrick refused to weigh in on the differences between the House and Senate bills this week, declining for example to offer an opinion on the happy-hour provision. But he too sounded unconcerned that any details would scuttle the deal, which he reached in principle over the summer with House and Senate leaders.

“I’ve been talking about this and working on this for a number of years now. Many people here in the Legislature have been working on it a lot longer than that,’’ he said earlier this week. “The bill has the contours in it of the things that I’m particularly concerned about.’’

Patrick’s administration declined yesterday to weigh in on the school issue.

Supporters of the school funding measure say they are simply rectifying an equity problem that was acknowledged in a 2006 law that reset how schools are funded. That law took into account that the state was already funding poor urban districts at a much higher level than suburban districts, which have historically paid a significantly larger share of their school expenses. So it set new minimum funding levels and promised more money for some districts, without taking money away from poor districts that were already depending heavily on the state.

But the recession has prevented the state from living up to some of the more recent promises.

Even though the new money was supposed to be phased in over a five-year period, districts have yet to receive all they were promised. Framingham, for example, is getting $7.2 million less from the state this year than was projected. Plymouth, where Senate President Therese Murray lives, is getting $2.8 million less.

“We do have a fundamental inequity in the way we fund our schools and we have not been able to address it,’’ said Senator Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat who sponsored the school provision in the casino bill.

Casino revenues, she said, offer an opportunity to fix that problem without harming any of the districts that are already receiving their fair share.

Koocher, of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, argues that even those districts that do not directly get casino money will benefit, because the money that gets added to the state budget “will lift up all boats.’’

But opponents question whether such a fundamental decision should be made as part of the casino discussion.

Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, pointed to a Boston Foundation report issued last year that said needy districts continue to be vastly outspent by wealthy districts.

“We know that different communities have different needs and this may be the only [new] pot of money available for education in the near future so we should be thoughtful about how we distribute it,’’ she said.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.