Sen. Comerford to fight for more school funding for region

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-09-2023 4:23 PM

AMHERST — State Sen. Jo Comerford says the state is not meeting the school funding needs of smaller, middle-income communities such as Amherst, Northampton and Hadley, and she’s pledging to push for more financial support for western Massachusetts.

“I agree with you completely that Chapter 70 doesn’t work for Amherst the way it is right now,” said Comerford, referring to the state’s school funding formula at the Amherst Town Council meeting on Monday. “We are like hawks on this money, because it is our job to make sure it comes home.”

Comerford and Rep. Mindy Domb attended the meeting to preview the current legislative session, a discussion that gave councilors a chance to offer input on where they would like to see action taken.

Much of the discussion centered around school funding and comes amid a backdrop of continuing negotiations with the union representing teachers and the possible elimination of 30 positions between the town and regional schools in next year’s budgets.

Demling: Schools need more support from town

Amherst School Committee member Peter Demling also attended the meeting, speaking after the presentation by Comerford and Domb, to advocate for increased municipal support for schools.

Demling asked councilors to explain to the community how, even with the town’s high taxes, staff cuts are necessary next school year. Additionally, conceding to demands from the Amherst Pelham Education Association would require spending $4 million above the current guidance of sticking to 2.5% increases.

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“You know that’s impossible,” Demling said. “A budget is a pie, not an infinite well.”

School administrators are proposing a $33.61 million budget for the regional schools and a $25.81 million budget for the elementary schools. Demling notes that, because of salary and other cost increases, maintaining level services would require more than a 6% increase.

“This is a difficult conversation to be having with the public, to present and to be discussing what to do about deep cuts in our school services,” Demling said. “It’s not easy. I would just ask you to please help us to explain the town’s fiscal constraints to the public so we can all arrive at the best solution as quickly as possible.”

Meanwhile, Allison McDonald, who chairs the Amherst School Committee, used her official Facebook page to update state aid projections for the town, based on Gov. Maura Healey’s budget, showing that the town will have an additional $354,000 to spend beginning July 1. While that could be spread among municipal and library services, McDonald suggested it should help to save school jobs and services.

“Tell the Town Council to direct ALL of this to our schools! We’re facing close to $2 million in cuts in Regional and Amherst schools.”

Demling said another strategy for advocacy, in addition to appeals to the Town Council, relates to a projected $3.3 million total net cost of charter schools to the town’s public schools, calculated as the $3.9 million in charter expenses, with a reimbursement of $543,000 from state transition aid, or just 14% of the town’s total charter bill.

As he notes, that $3.3 million would cover all of the anticipated staff and service cuts in next year’s budget, with $1.3 million left over.

Local delegation

While councilors did not directly address Demling’s comments, which were made during public comment, they did share their thoughts with Comerford and Domb.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said priorities might be changing how education funding works, the charter schools reimbursement formula and use of the money from the Fair Share Amendment. The governor’s initial proposal for K-12 education doesn’t appear to prioritize that.

“What the governor came out with didn’t seem to, or didn’t seem to do much,” said Schoen, referring to Healey’s first state budget released last week.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said the governor’s blueprint for use of the new money is very concerning, with the bulk of the transportation-related funding going to the MBTA, and not a lot of road funding for rural communities. Equally concerning is the approach to education, she said.

“The ed side, I was shocked to see there is almost no K-12 spending, especially when over the last decade and more we’ve seen the state’s share of the spending at the K-12 level of our budgets dramatically drop,” Hanneke said.

Hanneke suggested legislators also fix the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program to address the presence of the University of Massachusetts in town.

At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg, who chairs the Finance Committee, said the $30 guaranteed minimum increase in per-pupil state aid for Amherst is not enough, as mandated by the Student Opportunity Act.

“We support the Student Opportunity Act, but there needs to be some balance between high needs schools identified in the Student Opportunity Act and the rest of us,” Steinberg said.

Domb said redoing the charter school reimbursement formula and other educational topics could be addressed Monday, when a Joint Ways and Means Committee meeting that Comerford will be chairing takes place at UMass. Domb said legislators from eastern Massachusetts have different perceptions about education funding and don’t understand the context of how issues play out in the region.

“On the charter schools, I think it’s critically important to talk about not only how much money is coming out of the district, but how much the district is down right now and what it’s looking for in terms of cuts,” Domb said.

Comerford said Amherst officials can speak to better funding for the charter schools mitigation line, but also on other topics, such as regional school transportation and special education reimbursements, and other matters affecting rural schools.

“There are a number of ed lines that are very consequential for Amherst that I think Amherst can talk about,” Comerford said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>