House delivers small bit of good financial news for local schools

It’s been a year of budget struggles for local schools, but the Massachusetts House is set to deliver a small bit of relief.

The House Ways and Means Committee is proposing a new $40 billion budget that slightly increases education aid over the hike already proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Baker proposed increasing the so-called Chapter 70 aid by $137 million to $4.8 billion. That would mean just over a 2 percent increase statewide and less than 1 percent for some local schools.

The House wants to add another $33.5 million to that figure. That would mean a $30-per-student average increase for school departments rather than the governor’s $20 bump.

State Rep. Jim Hawkins, D-Attleboro, said Attleboro schools would get an extra $267,686 under the House budget.

He said the city needs the aid because it has yet to recover from when it had to let 35 teachers go two years ago because of budget problems. But, he added, it is not nearly enough.

Hawkins, who just took office earlier this month, repeated his support for a surtax on millionaires to raise more money for schools and transportation. State Rep. Betty Poirier, R-North Attleboro, whose town’s schools have their share of budget problems, also said the schools need the money.

“It’s never enough,” she said. “Our schools do need it to comply with everything they have to comply with.”

She said it is not just the school demanding more money. Her email is full of requests from people seeking more funding for their favorite program, she said. The long-term solution to the widespread school funding problems, she said, is to rewrite the formula for distributing Chapter 70 aid, but that could cost $1 billion. In the meantime, she said, the Legislature will only be able to “tweak” the formula a little at a time.

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center said the House committee did make a small change to the formula to better account for the increase in cost of health insurance for school employees.

State Rep. Jay Barrows, R-Mansfield, said health care costs in the overall budget must be addressed.

He pointed to reports that providing health care for 1.9 million needy residents is costing $16.6 billion and taking up an increasing share of the state budget, with large increases in costs each year.

Barrows said he expects the change in educational funding by Ways and Means will add $25,000 to $50,000 to the school departments in his district. State Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said he supports an amendment to add even more to Chapter 70.

He also said he backs a move to fully fund an account that helps schools pay for unexpectedly large increases in special education costs called the “circuit breaker.” The Legislature was out of session this week and schools were closed for April vacation, so specific numbers could not be obtained.

However, Poirier’s office was able to provide the total school aid amounts in the House budget for the following communities:

North Attleboro: $20,556,671 Attleboro: $37,749,124 Mansfield: $18,846,329 Foxboro: $8,967,870 Norton: $12,754,400 Plainville: $2,906,741 Wrentham: $3,765,913 Norfolk: $3,433,905 Seekonk: $5,454,099

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