NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

July 2, 2013

Pressure building over school mandates

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — In the face of mounting school costs brought on by unfunded state and federal mandates, municipal officials from across the state are pressuring state legislators to take a closer look at the mandates and find ways to make them less burdensome.

Last week, 85 members of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, including Amesbury Superintendent Michele Robinson and Assistant Superintendent Deirdre Farrell, appeared at the Statehouse to support new legislation that would create a task force dedicated to studying the state’s mandates and searching for better alternatives.

This issue of unfunded mandates has become a hotly charged topic in Amesbury, particularly after the School Committee was forced to approve a budget that fell nearly $1 million short of the committee’s expectations. Officials have railed against the mandates and argued that they’ve taken away money that otherwise could have been used to fund more teacher positions and reduce class sizes.

Farrell said her experience at the Statehouse was extremely encouraging, and it was clear that state lawmakers are taking the issue seriously.

“Absolutely, no question about it,” Farrell said. “I’ve been a member of MASS for over 10 years, and this was an impressive group of individuals that was testifying, and the senators at the hearing thanked everyone for being there.”

The testimony at the Statehouse came a day after Rep. Mike Costello, D-Newburyport, and Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, sat down with members of the Amesbury City Council, who shared their concerns about the city’s recently passed school budget and asked how the mandates could be addressed.

“One of the major concerns was the mandates, and whether they’re funded or unfunded, how Amesbury is affected by them and what might be unique to Amesbury in this specific situation,” Costello said. “The mandates cover everyone, and most of them are federal, so it’s like digging through weeds, figuring out which ones are which.”

Costello said the task force legislation would help communities like Amesbury by identifying which mandates can be addressed and figuring out how they are funded, if they’re redundant and how much they cost local towns. He said he is also co-sponsoring another piece of new legislation that would look at the state’s Chapter 70 funds. Chapter 70 is a term used to describe state money that is allocated to local schools, using a formula that takes numerous factors into consideration. The formula has been criticized by many school officials statewide.

The other main concern raised by city councilors to Costello and O’Connor Ives was the cost of special education, which was a major factor in the school system’s need for a $1.5 million increase just to maintain the existing level of services from last year.

O’Connor Ives said the conversation was well timed, as she and Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, had just co-sponsored an amendment to the state Senate’s supplemental budget that would create a new commission to study special education funding in the state.

The amendment has already passed the Senate, and if it is included in the House and Senate’s final budget, the commission would invite people to assess the current system and find out if there are alternative ways to address the needs of special education and fund it without burdening communities, as the current system does, O’Connor Ives said.

“Under the current system, the transportation costs and the unpredictability of those costs is a real stressor for municipalities trying to anticipate school budgets,” O’Connor Ives said.

Special education costs have hit the Amesbury schools particularly hard, and in the level-services budget presented by the School Committee in March, new special education costs were responsible for an enormous $685,311 of the school’s $1.5 million level-services increase.

Costello said the fact that Amesbury has a lot of moderate-income units that people can move in and out of easily is something that the state needs to look at, because if there is a high volume of transient people coming and going from Amesbury with special needs kids, it could quickly add some heavy costs to the school budget.

“All we need is two or three SPED expenses to really blow a hole in the budget. So clearly that’s another issue we have to look at,” he said. “When should a city or town own the special education costs of its student? And if it’s a transient student that’s moved from one place to another, is that a cost that the state should assume?”

Costello continued by saying that if the proposal is approved, Salem State would perform the analysis and come up with ways the state could save money, and one of the main questions looked at would be if state institutions could provide some of the services currently provided by places like the Landmark School in Beverly and Manchester-by-the-Sea.

“The question is if we have kids from all across the North Shore going to Landmark, why can’t we have one of our own state institutions take on a similar program?” Costello said. “So we could provide the same services out of North Shore Community College or a place like that?”