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Jeff Singleton: The real cause behind the local education financial crisis

Citing a looming $900,000 gap in the Easthampton school budget, Superintendent Nancy Follansbee warned that if the Proposition 2½ override failed, “we’re going to have to start dismantling the school system.”

The override failed, as most do, so we shall see. But we must ask, why do these chronic school budget gaps exist and would an override have solved the problem? These questions need to be asked in every city and town in the region, not just in Easthampton.

I consider myself a liberal who supports public education. I am a resident of Montague who has served on both the Montague Finance Committee and the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee. I have a son in high school. I have supported two overrides in the past 10 years for our regional school district.

But I now oppose Proposition 2½ overrides unless they are linked to long-term budget plans that address the root causes of perennial school funding gaps. The main causes can be stated simply, they are: long-term union contracts that cannot be financed by projected revenues and chronically inadequate state aid under the Chapter 70 program.

Most school districts agree to long-term contracts for wages and benefits for employees that are not clearly (and publicly) justified by projected revenues. That is to say, the cost of annual increases in wages, health care and pensions are not evaluated in the context of projected revenues. The entire process is conducted outside the public eye and once these agreements are signed, they appear as so-called “fixed costs” over which districts have no control. Essentially, the biggest slices of the school district budget pie are taken out of the budget process and out of the debate over budget gaps that produce overrides.

I am not arguing that these agreements are excessively generous or that school staff, particularly teachers, do not deserve these increases. I think they generally do. My point is that school districts often can simply not afford them and this reality is obscured by the nature of the collective bargaining process.

The second problem is state aid, particularly the so-called Chapter 70 program that finances a large portion of the school budget. And they are a major reason for school funding gaps. When your school budget goes up by 3 to 4 percent and state funding is essentially flat, big budget shortfalls result.

The conventional wisdom holds that this problem is caused by state-level fiscal constraints — that is, not enough state revenue. I disagree. In fact, the state has been extremely generous with overall education aid given its chronic fiscal problems. This fiscal year, for example, total Chapter 70 aid to cities and towns increased by over 4 percent.

The problem is, a minority of districts get most of this money, while the rest are virtually level funded. This is caused by the state funding formula. The formula is a brilliant, well-intentioned and complex tool that simply does not work. It wildly exaggerates the impact of enrollment on school budgets. It also distorts the impact of small changes in local revenues (the so-called minimum contribution) on the relative need for state funding. The result is wildly varying levels of state aid with a few winners and many losers. Most districts in the region are in the latter category.

Rather than lobbying for a change in the state aid formula or rethinking how labor contracts are negotiated, school officials and their supporters turn to local taxpayers with moralistic arguments about the importance of education. There follows a predictably divisive debate that pits supporters of public education against advocates for the elderly on fixed incomes.

This debate does not address the core problem.

Jeff Singleton is a Montague Town Meeting Member and a former member of the Montague Finance Committee and the Gill-Montague School Committee.

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