School committee members and administration from the Old Rochester Regional School District and town officials were told the key to an all-around successful regional relationship: “You need to play nice in the sandbox.”
That is what Mary Jane Handy, the director of accounts at the Division of Local Services of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue and also a former regional school district business manager, told them on January 24.
Handy said she’s now been on both sides of the issue, “So I know what your pain is.”
“I also know … towns pitting against the regional school district is never gonna solve anything,” Handy said.
The fiscal year 2018 ORR budget discussion last year included outbursts of frustration from town administrators and finance committees over school spending and contract negotiation practices, which led to an overall amplified air of contention between the two sides.
Old Rochester Regional School Committee Chairman Tina Rood welcomed everyone inside the junior high school media room that night, saying, “I love that we are all in the same room together as we all enter this budget season … I’m just so glad that we’re starting out this way.”
The meeting was organized as a way to provide the school committee, school administrators, and town officials and employees a general overview of the legislative nature of a regionalized school district and their components – words such as assessment, minimum contribution, and Chapter 70 – that comprise a lexicon unique to regionalized school district agreements.
Other guests invited to present were from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, including Director Christine Lynch and Jay Sullivan, associate of the School Finance and District Support Center.
Superintendent Doug White said the meeting was meant to offer guidance to the ORR School District and the three towns moving forward and to provide some analysis of the district in comparison to other districts with similar demographics.
Just as important, White pointed out, was that the ORR regionalized school district agreement amongst the three towns, a legal document, has not been reevaluated or amended since 1986. According to Lynch, the Department of Education has its last recorded amendment to the ORR agreement dated further back to 1973.
Lynch suggested the three towns re-visit the regionalization agreement, especially since much has changed in the legislation since the three towns regionalized just before ORR was established in 1961.
Lynch, having reviewed ORR’s agreement, said, “There’s a lot of outdated information.”
She suggested the three towns and the ORR School Committee form a committee tasked with amending the agreement to bring it up to date.
“The laws have changed pretty dramatically,” said Lynch, with the most notable change coming with Education Reform in 1992, “Which dramatically changed the Chapter 70 formula.”
The Chapter 70 program provides state aid and support to public elementary and secondary school operations and through a formula establishes the minimum spending requirements for each school district and each municipality’s share of the costs.
It’s that Chapter 70 formula that generated most of the questions and comments from those in attendance like Marion Finance Committee Chairman Alan Minard and Marion Finance Director Judy Mooney.
Lynch attempted to demystify bits of that formula, which formulates a foundation budget sufficient to meet the needs of the school district, then takes into account municipalities’ tax revenue and, as with a regionalized school district, the number of students from each town and the median household income in each town among other factors to determine each town’s assessment, or contribution.
But this formula has been a topic of contentious discussion for years.
Mooney commented, “You can never budget accordingly. You never know what that net school spending … is going to be.” She said from year to year, one of the three towns always ends up with a bigger ‘hit.’
But there is a lot more to that Chapter 70 formula than first meets the eye, which is what is so frustrating about it, as Minard pointed out, adding that he was not even sure if the DOR had accurate information on Marion as it analyzes that formula on an annual basis.
Sullivan commented that the formula might not even be based on annual information; rather, it could be based on a three-year average instead.
“The emphasis here is on towns paying in accordance to their ability,” said Lynch.
Lynch said historically the formula was simple and primarily based on student enrollment, but that changed in 1992, “…When all of a sudden it switched,” said Lynch. And with the regionalized district, the state determines through the formula what each of the towns’ assessment is.
Vocational, agricultural, and charter schools further exacerbate the equation from a budgetary standpoint as each individual town is responsible for the tuition of each student from that town who attends a school out of district, and it falls within the local school district’s budget.
Onto the subject of regional school district transportation costs, most everyone attending as a listener agreed that the decision to regionalize weighed heavily on the Commonwealth’s promise to reimburse 100% of the cost of transportation, which has never been fulfilled. At best, regionalized districts have been reimbursed up to 75% at the most.
Sullivan in his presentation commented that he completely disagreed with the merit of a 100% reimbursement.
“I’ve been responsible for transportation reimbursement for probably the last twenty-five years,” said Sullivan. “I’ve seen some people make some really bad decisions – you can make bad choices when you don’t have skin in the game.”
Although the state guaranteed municipalities that it would reimburse, Sullivan stated, “A hundred-percent reimbursement of any cost is just bad public policy.” It gives no incentive for a regionalized school district to be prudent in its transportation spending, he suggested.
Mattapoisett Finance Committee Chairman Pat Donoghue was not impressed.
“What you don’t seem to understand is … we (Mattapoisett) pay a disproportionate share of the expenses for ORR, in addition to the fact that we gave up taxable land (in order to build the school) … and we agreed to that based upon certain agreements with the state…
Dealing in business primarily and not in education, said Donoghue, she argued that any other person with whom she‘d enter into a contract and not get paid, “I’d be in court in a nanosecond and the judge would give me the money!” Why should the state get to play by other rules, she asked.
Donoghue also said that Mattapoisett often had to “subsidize Rochester” according to the Chapter 70 formula.
Sullivan said he hears their frustration, but “It is what it is,” which is what he said several times that night. He knows it is not what school districts like to hear, he added.
“It’s not really what we’d like, it’s what we’ve been promised,” said Rood, “and it’s kind of disappointing to hear that we are not being supported in that way because that is something that is impacting our budgets every year. We are creating our budgets based on a promise that was made to us.”
Sullivan said his department in the Department of Education understands, but it cannot change the status quo because regionalized transportation costs are not a priority in the legislature.
“If the state auditor convinces the legislature to fund it one hundred percent, then God bless you, you’ll have your one hundred percent reimbursement,” said Sullivan, “but as a state agency, we can’t do anything about it. We don’t appropriate funds.”
“If it isn’t a priority of the Department of Education, then it’s not going to be a priority of the legislature,” commented ORR School Committee member Heather Burke. “To just say that it’s just not a good idea when so many people are struggling with this feels like we’re being let down.”
The Department of Education sets policy, said Sullivan. It is the board of education that sets priorities.
“And I’m not sure transportation is even remotely on that list. There are so many other things that the Board … wants to do.”
Sullivan touched upon Circuit Breaker funding, which is money the state reimburses to provide relief for extraordinary costs in providing special education and has been reimbursed at a lower rate these days. “I really kind of feel bad about what’s happening with Circuit Breaker (in FY2019),” which saw an increase in claims of 8.4%, said Sullivan.
White brought up the issue of School Choice with its revenue of $5,000 per out-of-district pupil, a price that was set back in 1991 and has never increased over time.
Donoghue said the cost to educate a student is now at $15,000 per child, yet school districts are stuck with the “1991 price” for School Choice reimbursement.
But that is legislation, said Sullivan. It’s in the law. “I would say … if local officials and school committee folks talk to their legislators about changing that law, that’s the only way this is going to get changed.”
Handy rounded out the meeting by giving the lowdown on OPEB liability and Excess and Deficiency spending, adding that it has been a long time since she has seen an ‘E and D’ certification “as clean” as ORR’s has been recently, but in the end it distilled back down to her main point – play nice in the sandbox together, towns officials and school committee members and administrators.
“If you don’t, all you’re going to be doing is hitting yourself,” Handy cautioned them. “The worst thing is pitting against each other.”
Next steps: explore updating the agreement and further the discussion on what a 21st century education looks like and how to fund it.
“I appreciate that you all came out, that you were part of the conversation,” White said.
The next scheduled meeting for the Old Rochester Regional School Committee will be on March 22 at 6:30 pm at the junior high school media room.
ORR District Budget Meeting
By Jean Perry