Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Money is not the only answer...

Money is not the only answer, but it makes a difference. - Barack Obama


Today I had the opportunity to present oral testimony to a joint session of the Massachusetts House and Senate Committee on Ways and Means with regard to educational funding and the FY'18 budget. The following is a full copy of the written testimony presented to the committee. 


March 29, 2017

The Honorable Brian S. Dempsey, House Chair
The Honorable Karen E. Spilka, Senate Chair
The Honorable Stephen Kulik, House Vice Chair
The Honorable Sal N. DiDomenico, Senate Vice Chair
The Honorable Elizabeth A. Malia, House Assistant Vice Chair
The Honorable Patricia Jehlen, Senate Assistant Vice Chair
The Honorable Todd M. Smola, Ranking House Minority Member
The Honorable Viriato M. deMacedo, Ranking Senate Minority Member
Joint Committee on Ways and Means

Dear Representative Dempsey, Senator Spilka, and Distinguished Members of the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means:

My name is Dr. Todd H. Gazda and I am the Superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools. Additionally, I am also an Executive Committee member for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and it is in that capacity that I am before you today. We are at a pivotal juncture in this country with respect to public education. Our public schools find themselves under a microscope and pulled by competing forces like never before. It is a system in flux as it strives to institute necessary change in order to effectively meet the demands of today’s students and society.

Change never comes without cost: be that time, money, resources or personnel. These elements are intricately tied together and essential for productive organizations to function effectively. The number and pace of regulations to which we as educators and schools must respond continues to increase at an alarming rate. The problem is that State and federal revenue has not kept pace with the burdens created by these demands.

The early 1990’s saw a major change to the delivery of educational services we provided to the children in this state.  When talking about education, policy makers often like to point out that the development of Massachusetts statewide standards for teaching and learning coupled with assessment of those standards through a standardized state test propelled our Commonwealth on an upward trajectory from a good educational system to a great one that leads the country and is competitively ranked among the best in the world. However, what those same individuals often overlook, or at best downplay, is the massive infusion of state money and resources that accompanied that change in practice.

We now find ourselves in a similar situation as faced our Commonwealth in the early 1990’s with the Foundation Budget Review Commission finding that schools in Massachusetts are underfunded by billions of dollars. In the 1993 case of McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the education clause of our Commonwealth’s Constitution is not “merely aspirational or hortatory, but also imposes on the Commonwealth an enforceable duty to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools.”  We can only hope that it won’t take a looming court case like McDuffy to spur necessary action now.

This year the governor’s budget proposes an increase of $20/student in Chapter 70 funding. Although, this comes to millions of dollars at the state level and sounds impressive when considered in the aggregate, when parsed out and distributed across the state it is woefully inadequate to the task we are being asked to accomplish.  Take Ludlow for example, this proposed increase would garner us approximately $52,000.

To put that in perspective, the amount our budget here in Ludlow (~2600 students/total proposed FY’18 budget of $33,674,143) would need to increase just to maintain level services next year is $877,834. Furthermore, that figure does not calculate in the increase in health insurance rates which would push that amount even higher. Consequently, M.A.S.S. is asking that this year, at a minimum, the legislature increase Chapter 70 funding by $100.00/ student for FY’18. Although this won’t get us to where we truly need to be, it is a step in the right direction.

It costs money to change a system and currently the flaws in the state funding formula, coupled with insufficient financial support at the state level merely shifts the burden to adequately fund our schools from the state to local municipalities.

What is the practical impact of that problem for us? It means that flaws in the Foundation Budget formula result in an ever increasing gap between what the state says is the minimum amount required to operate a school system (Net School Spending Requirement) and what it actually takes to run a district. Many factors are exacerbating that discrepancy and these problems are clearly outlined in the foundation budget review commission report. I would like to highlight just a few of the major issues that are creating major problems for districts across the state.

  1. Insufficient state financial support is creating, once again a disparity and equity problem between those more affluent communities that can support additional funds above the Net School Spending Requirement and those that are in weaker financial positions. This is one of the very issues the McDuffy case was based upon. 
  1. This equity issue is a multi-faceted problem as the disparity is driven by different factors depending upon the communities involved. In our rural areas where there are little if any commercial interests, the primary source of local funding comes from residential property taxes. This dynamic is causing those taxes to increase dramatically while seriously curtailing local towns and schools ability to appropriate needed funds due to the shortfall in state support. A declining student population in many of the rural areas of the state is adding to the financial challenges faced in these localities.
In our urban centers, the challenges of school districts being forced to fill the gaps left by underfunded social service agencies is straining the available resources in those communities. Adding an additional financial burden in a number of these urban centers are the recent changes in the funding formula for economically disadvantaged students. The change in the way these students are accounted for by the formula has led to a situation where the number of these students in several districts being dramatically under calculated resulting in the loss of substantial funds. This problem has been recognized by state regulatory authorities and yet a remedy to this problem has yet to be developed. 

  1. As the gap widens between the Net School Spending Requirement and Actual Costs, those of us advocating for our schools at the local level are facing an increasingly uphill battle. As we advocate for support of our local budget we experience understandable resistance in our communities as we argue for budgets that are millions of dollars above the Net School Spending Requirement. This leads to the inaccurate perception that we are not managing our funds effectively and, while we can explain that the formula is flawed, that explanation has difficulty resonating when held up against the millions of dollars many towns are spending above the Net School Spending Requirement. Each year as that gap widens, that challenge increases.

  1. Consequently, M.A.S.S. strongly supports the approval and implementation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s findings.  The face of public education is dramatically changing. Undervaluation by the current formula of the cost of health insurance, special education, education for English Language Learners, transportation reimbursement, among other areas are problems of which you are aware.

a.      Health insurance and benefits actual expenses exceed the allowance in the foundation budget by $1.2 billion.
    1.     Special Education actual expenses exceed the assumed allowances in the foundation budget by over $1 billion.

I have included the M.A.S. S. talking points regarding the School Finance Task Force Report with this written testimony. That document outlines our organization’s review of that study along with our major concerns and some potential solutions regarding school finance. We are more than willing to lend our energies and educational expertise to working with you to figure out remedies to the problems facing our system.

In 1993 the Massachusetts State Legislature showed great fortitude and foresight in developing a seven year plan to bring state funding up to appropriate levels. It is time for that again. It is time that we fund education to the amounts indicated by the Foundation Budget Review Commission established by the state to research this very topic. It is time that we live up to the obligations we have already made, such as fully funding special education circuit breaker accounts, regional transportation, and charter school reimbursement, prior to creating additional requirements further necessitating the commitment of financial resources.

As I said at the beginning of this testimony, change never comes without a cost. We have an educational system that must be transformed to meet the needs of today’s student and our global 21st century society. Yet, the funding we are receiving from the state makes it challenging to maintain the status quo, let alone change the system. There is only so much we can do at the local level to redistribute, reallocate and repurpose scarce resources. We need your help.

As superintendents responsible for the management of resources in our districts we understanding the political and fiscal realities confronting us. We understand the problems of a scarcity of current resources, funding streams available and the realities of our current political environment both locally and at the federal level. Massachusetts continues to be a leader in public education and the model to which the country looks for guidance. It is time that we demonstrate once again the political willpower to live up to the duty clearly articulated in our state constitution, reinforced by McDuffy, that our state must “provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools.”  

Thank you for your time today. We truly appreciate all that you have done, and will do, for our children and our schools. We recognize the dilemma facing this body and the legislature as a whole and M.AS.S. is committed to working with you in this process.

Sincerely,


Todd H. Gazda, Ed.D., JD
Superintendent, Ludlow Public Schools
Executive Committee Member, M.A.S.S.

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