Margaret Raymond Driscoll is a nine-year Melrose School Committee member who is passionate about excellent teaching and learning for all public school students, and considers it a privilege to collaborate with others who share that passion. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc. Just to be clear - opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Melrose Public Schools, the Melrose School Committee, or the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials - they are hers alone.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Foundation Budget Update, and Why We Should All Care

Rep. Alice Peisch, Co-Chair of the state Joint Committee on Education, is also co-chairing the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC). She spoke to the Mass. Association of School Business Officials (MASBO) last Thursday about the Commission’s work and anticipated outcomes and timelines.  (Note: Municipalities and school districts are watching closely as the Foundation Budget builds a key funding source for schools – Chapter 70 money. It’s helpful for parents to know some basics in order to help advocate for fair and equitable funding. School Committee Chair Kristin Thorp wrote a good analysis on how the Foundation Budget and Chapter 70 work (here: http://1i8brn1xoauz1pwsvo1ktb7vb1q.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Chapter-70-Explanation-4.7.15.pdf and you can read the Committee’s March feedback to the FBRC here: http://1i8brn1xoauz1pwsvo1ktb7vb1q.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/030915-FBRC-letter.pdf.)

Rep. Peisch opened her remarks by noting that the limited number of people in school districts who understand the Foundation Budget has been eye-opening. She said that the Commission’s focus has been on two areas: the cost of benefits (especially healthcare), and special education (SPED). The Commission voted to recommend (and their advisory board needs to confirm) that the healthcare percentage be raised to the average GIC amount for municipal members. It will likely also be recommended that it should have its own inflation number (which varies region to region) on an annual basis. That was a relatively easy recommendation based on reports over the years.

There are a couple recommendations regarding in-district SPED: 1. raise the in-district tuition percentage from 3.75 to 4 for most districts (and from 4.75% to 5% for vocational schools); 2. raise assumed out of district (OOD) tuition by about $8000. Rep. Peisch noted that very few OOD placements are within the designated level – most are much more. The intent is that raising the dollar amount and adding the in-district amount will get districts to where circuit breaker kicks in.

The legislation that created the FBRC required that the report be filed by June. There are many other components that could be considered, so the Commission concluded that they should look for a modest extension of time. Many Commission members were concerned that if it goes on too long they will lose focus and implementation could be delayed. (In the past, reports come out and get attention but nothing happens – she wants to focus on what’s doable.) (Note: this is her opinion; others on the Commission want to keep the process going a little longer.)

At the last FBRC meeting Karla Brooks Baehr (former Deputy Commissioner of Education) presented an analysis of the range of spending in districts (high spending / high performance, high spending / low performance and the rest of that quadrant). What are low spending/high performance districts doing and how can that be replicated? At the next meeting on 6/5 they will discuss the use and reallocation of funds to improve outcomes. They will also consider what additional areas other Commission members would like to look at. Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz is planning to file an amendment to the budget to extend the life of the Commission, and the items they might consider if that amendment is approved is to be seen, although they are likely to think about (and possibly make a recommendation about) decentralized funding and decision-making (i.e. requiring that all schools are provided a budget equal to what the foundation budget would be for each school). How money is spent is currently left up to the districts; this approach would target money to schools. There could also be potential adjustments to low income and/or ELL components (although it will be hard to reach consensus).


Was there discussion around the % of OOD SPED students? The decision was not to change the % because a recent study shows that the current % is pretty close to reality (slightly +/- 1%).

What about Section 260 – retiree health insurance? The cost of retiree health insurance is significant and is part of the recommendation on healthcare.

Is the Commission considering looking at potentially changing the 10/1 enrollment reporting date? She can’t speak for the Commission since there’s been no group discussion about it. There are plusses and minuses to moving it out – some people want to know early on what the budget can be to plan their Ch. 70 money; moving it further out would make that more difficult. They are considering making it clear that funds appropriated to the pothole account should be available for increases in population from 10/1 through the beginning of the next school year.

How did estimates of circuit breaker impact discussions of FBRC? The Commission is charged with making a recommendation. The issue is probably identified but how the legislation language is crafted could be in the FBRC report or circuit breaker legislation. (MASBO Exec. Director Dave Verdolino who is also a member of the Commission would like the circuit breaker formula held harmless.) Other suggestions regarding circuit breaker that the Education Committee is looking at now include providing incentives for use of collaboratives, in-district programs, etc. which saves money (assuming they are of good quality).

Some of the SPED pieces seem low; what was the thinking around that? The OOD 1% turns out not to be low – it’s fairly accurate. If you take into account what is calculated for that student anyway, this increase would cover the difference between that and when circuit breaker kicks in. On in-district SPED, Superintendents recommended 4%. In the order of magnitude, if the state is limited to just these two items, using FY14 numbers, the increase would be a budget increase of $9.7B to $10.5B and the state’s portion would go up $500M ($800 total). A lot of communities are getting funded at about their target now, so they won’t get anything.  The Commission has not been specific about how legislation will be written. From a political standpoint, there may be pressure to hold all districts harmless (i.e. all districts benefit).

Dave Verdolino commented that there’s a lot of money up for consideration ($500M). The recommendations will go to a joint group and then to the full legislature. Rep. Peisch indicated that when it goes to the legislature, it’s extremely important to reach out to legislators since they are responsible to constituents. (If this report gets filed because there is no advocacy, nothing will happen in this area for a long time.) Looking at the timeframe, once recommendations are made, they would go to a joint committee to “sort out obstacles” and a bill would be filed at the beginning of the next session; that’s when advocacy should start. She cautioned: don’t get caught up in looking for the perfect solution. Support something that is a significant improvement for most districts. Her best guess is that implementation would be phased in over a number of years.

(Note: the Melrose School Committee has tentatively placed the FBRC report as an item on our July 28th agenda.)