By Krista Kano, MetroWest Daily News
October 22, 2011
Proponents of a Senate casino amendment that would distribute education funds to some wealthier Massachusetts towns and cities fended off criticism yesterday, saying the plan is only fulfilling goals made by the state in 2006.
That year, the state set a budget formula for all school districts to use, with the state hoping to provide at least 17.5 percent of the money needed to support the budgets. But the state has struggled to make those payments, with 158 of 326 communities considered underfunded this year, when the state came up $113 million short.
The state money was distributed based on need, meaning poor communities received more than cities and towns with higher property tax revenues.
The gambling bill amendment looks to counteract that. Called Strengthening our Schools, the amendment gives underfunded districts priority when the extra money from casino revenue is doled out.
Public schools are due to get 14 percent of casino revenue under the amendment filed by Sen. Katherine Clark, D-Melrose, which is now being considered by a conference committee since it was passed by the Senate but not voted on in the House.
“It’s more a matter of equity,” said Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury. “The communities who aren’t receiving any additional aid aren’t because they’re already receiving the promised amount.”
Southborough, for example, has received all of the nearly $3 million it was promised by the state in 2007 and would not get any more under the amendment.
Framingham, the town most significantly underfunded, according the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, would receive the most. There is a $7 million difference between what Framingham was promised and what it received for the 2011-12 fiscal year.
If the amendment becomes law, many high-need districts will not receive more funding because they have already met their target aid, lawmakers said.
The amendment’s many co-sponsors included Sens. James Eldridge, D-Acton, and Karen Spilka, D-Ashland.
“People need to be clear that this money would not be available until after the casinos are built and revenue is coming into the state, which would take several years,” Spilka said.
The amendment passed, 34-4, in the Senate, with Sens. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, and Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville, dissenting.
“I hope that we will not be making educational policy in this forum,” Jehlen said during debate on the amendment Oct. 11. “I ask that we refer this debate back to the Education Committee so we may do what’s best for all of the children, not just what would benefit our particular communities.”
Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education, said she hasn’t made up her mind on the amendment.
“If we start to allocate the money before we even receive it and can see what the actual needs of the communities are, then we may have boxed ourselves into a situation that doesn’t give us flexibility,” she said. “I’m concerned that early education might actually be in a greater need than the communities in this particular amendment.”
The amendment, which does not appear in the House version of the bill, will be discussed in a conference committee of three representatives and three senators. That committee will create a uniform version of the bill to be sent to the House and Senate for a final vote before going to Gov. Deval Patrick.
The House has named Reps. Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee, Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, and Paul Frost, R-Auburn, as its committee members. The Senate will announce its representation next week.