By Brendan Clogston
The school department’s annual budget crisis as it scrambles to make up for the multimillion dollar hole blown into its finances by a major change in how the state calculates aid may be coming to end. According to State Senator Sal DiDomenico, a “permanent fix” has been included in the Senate’s final budget, and it may well be signed into law this summer.
In March, State Senator Sal DiDomenico told the City Council that there was a plan to solve the school department’s cycle of budget crises – largely caused by a hole in their finances by a change to how the state allocates aid for low-income students. The plan was simple: Simply allow the old way of calculating aid, which worked well for Everett, to coexist with the new way, which works well for almost everyone except for Everett and a few other communities.
“Basically, whatever formula works best for a community, they can use,” said DiDomenico.
Making that plan a reality, however, was a little more complicated: The senator was going to have to convince many of his colleagues to include a measure in the budget that might ultimately take money away from their communities, get it through the Senate, keep the House from scrapping it, and get the governor to sign it.
According to DiDomenico, who spoke at the council meeting Monday night, the first – and most difficult – of those hurdles has been overcome. The item was included in the approved Senate budget, which will now go to a conference committee between the House and the Senate. It is expected to receive a full vote before Memorial Day before going to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk to be signed.
“Traditionally,” DiDomenico said. “The governor will sign whatever the conference committee comes up with.”
For three years, the Everett School Department has been struggling with the change in how the state allocates Chapter 70 funding to help communities pay for free and reduced lunches for their students. Previously, districts counted the number of students in need on their own. Under the change, however, the state bases its figure on the number of students whose families are enrolled in poverty programs like food stamps. This presents a problem for communities like Everett, which as a gateway community has a large number of young and immigrant families; many of them either don’t qualify for or don’t know how to access these programs.
As a result, the city has a large number of students for whom it provides free and reduced lunches, but the district is no longer receiving the necessary state aid to pay for them, creating a yearly budget crisis in the school district. It’s no simple problem of reversing the formula either, as Everett is one of only 15 communities – mostly poorer with a large population of immigrants – which have suffered as a result of the change, while the vast majority of cities and towns have seen their Chapter 70 funding increase.
Rather than changing the formula, however, what DiDomenico has proposed is adding a new criteria that could allow those 15 communities to receive a fairer share of the pot: the free and reduced lunch forms collected by the district. This would allow Everett to give a “true count” of its students in need of free and reduced lunches, and boost its state aid funding considerably.
“We’ll have a true number of the low-income students in our school department, down to the student,” said DiDomenico. “That solves the problem. That will allow us to move forward and not have this longstanding deficit that we’ve had over the last few years with this hole in the budget because we were not treated fairly by the formula.”
DiDomenico also told councillors that some changes had been made to charter school reimbursements under the FY 19 budget, another frequent cause of budget woes for the city.
The Senate has put an additional $20 million into the line item, which will “filter down” to the city. In addition, $37 million has been added to the transportation services special education circuit breaker. In all, the city will receive between $300,000 and $400,000 from those two items. The city will also receive about $2 million over last year’s number on chapter 70.
DiDomenico cautioned councillors that these changes do not change the budget situation for the schools this year, which will see a large contribution from the city to forestall any of the special appropriations which caused controversy over the course of FY 18. “The mayor has been very generous with the amount that he wants to give to the schools this year – the six and a half million dollars – and this is totally independent of that,” said DiDomenico, “so I don’t want anyone to think that we can get this and not do that. That is false because at this point in time, we have to work through the process. You will finish your budget before we finish ours, so we want to make sure that we’re in good standing across the board.”