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Monfredo: Needed … An Adequate School Budget In Worcester

Sunday, April 24, 2016

 

Since last week’s column on the Worcester Public Schools budget more disappointment has taken place.  I was hoping that the Representatives in the State House would review the Foundation Budget  Commission recommendations and take some action.  We all know that those recommendations cannot be done in one year but they need to be addressed and implemented one step at a time. Thus far the Governor and the legislators have done little to tackle this year’s pressing budget deficit.  

I fear that we are reverting back to 1993 when the State Supreme Court case McDuffy v. the Office of Education ruled that Massachusetts had a constitutional obligation to offer all children an adequate education regardless of the wealth of their communities.  Because of that ruling the State established a Foundation Budget and it was based on calculations of what an adequate education budget would be for the idea was to guarantee excellence and equity across the state regardless of the wealth of the communities.  The 1990’s were good for education but in 2001 the good times ended for there was an economy slow-down.  Since then state aid to local education has not increased as fast as inflation. The lack of adequate state funding affects every district but it affects poor children the most.  Perhaps we need to review the McDuffy v. Secretary of the Office of Education again and consider court action and move toward securing  excellence and equity for the children in this state.

We all need to know that education is not a spectator sport for it is an effort that requires partnerships.  We need to commit to the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child.”    I’m convinced that John Q. Public sees the yellow school buses running and thinks that everything is fine and has the resources to move forward!  Wrong and I’m writing to state my case!!  The city happens to be in the bottom 2% state wide in giving above the foundation budget and we are 10th from the bottom across the state of the 328 school districts.  Most cities and towns average giving about 15%  above the Foundation Budget and Worcester’s percentage is about one tenth above the Foundation Budget. It was too long ago that we were slightly below the Foundation Budget.

Our Worcester citizens needs to understand that the money received by the school department from the city to support our schools is the minimum requirement established by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts… it’s the law!  Any money above the minimum has to be voted on by the City Council and taken out of our city budget.  

I have stated publicly that City Manager Augustus has been great for our city.  He does attempt to treat both branches of our city and schools as one.  He knows the importance of a strong educational system and the impact it has on the city economic growth.   Way back in 1989,  former Senator  Paul Tsongas, speaking in Worcester said it best…”Nothing is more important to the development of a vital downtown than the quality of the public education system.”  Education is key to moving our city forward.  Teachers turn the key that unlocks the door to knowledge in this community and in this country.

So what can be done in Worcester?  I believe that there are areas that need to be explored and brought to the attention of our City Manger.  Let’s start with the grant processing fee. I am well aware that the city just can’t manufacture the revenue but there are standing issues that still have NOT been addressed.  Looking back several years ago the City charged the school department a 1% processing fee for grants that the schools wrote and received from various sources.  Then all of sudden the fee was raised to 3% for processing those grants. Since this arrangement has gone into effect the school department has had to give the city around seven million dollars from its grants.  Most districts in Massachusetts don’t even charge their school department a processing fee. Does this seem fair to you? 

 The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has stated in a letter several years ago that the setting of fees is the prerogative of the School Committee. However, this issue has never been resolved!  Last year our new City Manager did reduce the processing fee to 2 ½ percentage and I thank him for it. However,  if we went back the  1% as in the past that would bring back to the schools about $670,000. That’s a lot of teachers we could be hiring and thus reducing class size.

The next issue is the Medicaid reimbursement… I have asked that the city and the schools have a meaningful discussion on a fifty – fifty split of Medicaid funds that are billed by the Worcester Public Schools to the Federal Government and processed by the school system. The Worcester Public Schools collects the money from the Federal Government for providing certain medical, occupational and physical therapy services to Medicaid eligible students.  The Schools collected over $2.5 million just last year and turned it over to the city.  A split would have given the district $1.25 million and it certainly could have gone towards saving teacher positions this year.

Remember, these are services that are required to be provided to the students as part of their school day. Because of an antiquated state law none of these funds actually go back to the Worcester Public Schools for they are placed in the general budget of the city.  Many cities and town have a 50-50 split  but not Worcester. As it so happens, the Worcester Public Schools are losing twice in this situation … receiving no benefit for collecting the money and no funds to offset the cost of collecting the money.

As an educator and now as a School Committee member I’m passionate about education and I am trying to do more for our children. I am advocating for fairness within our city for I believe we can do more for this community through education.  A city that spends  little on the education of its children can be a deterrent for families looking to live here. We need and want young families and business people to stay in our city for a sound economy in any city depends on a good public education system. The quality of life in this community is at stake for if we don’t have a viable school system it will impact our economy and our workforce. Education is the most important economic engine to our city’s growth. In addition, unlike businesses, we cannot make up a lost year in a child’s life for children have only one shot at each grade level.  

Let me end with this quote from retired newscaster Tom Brokaw.  “There is a place in America to take a stand.  It is public education."  It is the underpinning of our cultural and political system. It is the great common ground.  Public education, after all, is the engine that moves us as a society toward the common destiny… it is in public education that the American Dream begins to take shape.”

One final word… I ask our readers to be an advocate for education and lobby for equality with our state and local officials… do it for the children!

 

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