Baker to discuss cuts with local officials

SPRINGFIELD – When asked Friday about whether he would look to restore at least some of the $18 million in funding for regional school transportation that was slashed by his predecessor Deval L. Patrick, Gov. Charlie Baker made no guarantees but vowed to broach the topic with state and local leaders.
“We’ll have discussions with local officials and folks in the legislature about regional transportation and see where we can go on that,” said Baker, a Swampscott Republican who served in the administration of former Gov. William Weld.
“We’re in the process of working through all the issues of the fiscal 2016 budget. We have (a deficit) somewhere between $1.2-1.5 billion, which is a big number,” said Baker bluntly Friday in his Springfield office. “We promised we weren’t going to cut local aid – we’re not going to do that. We promised we weren’t going to create any more unfunded mandates for cities and towns – we’re not going to do that.”
While Baker and his Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito are steadfast in their commitment to leaving local aid alone as the state tries to balance a budget deficit, one would have to excuse the skepticism of residents of rural regional school districts of Baker’s response regarding Chapter 70 funding.
At a recent meeting of the Gateway Regional School Committee earlier this week, a vote to accept school-choice students passed 11-0, with one abstention, as a means of bringing in out-of-district students – and more revenue – to offset the projected deficit that would result if the town of Worthington eventually withdraws from the district.
“Everybody’s going through a similar situation, though not as dire as Gateway’s because we’re potentially losing a town,” said GRSD Superintendent Dr. David Hopson, who stated that he is eagerly waiting for Baker’s FY16 budget, which will be unveiled next Wednesday.
During a school committee meeting earlier this month, Hopson stated that the district’s proposed six-town budget of $16.4 million budget could face up to a $1.07 million loss in revenue if Worthington departs, and he expressed his doubts Wednesday about the potential for Chapter 70 reform.
“The state is not climbing out of the recession at a pace that will allow them to add a lot more money into Chapter 70,” he said, stating that reform would likely cost the Commonwealth $2 billion.
Committee member Ron Damon of Huntington motioned to accept school choice subject to the limitations of grade levels left up to the individual school administrators, to which Jeff Wyand of Huntington raised questions about how the school choice math would work out.
“Opening the door for school choice is something we’ve done for years,” said Damon. “If you have 50 students, two teachers – 25 students per teacher – you can’t take more students in school choice unless you want larger class enrollments.”
“We get $5,000 in (per student) and you said it costs $12,000 to educate a student. How is it going to offset the cost of busing just Worthington students?” asked Wyand, to which Gateway Business and Finance Officer Stephanie Fisk responded that the district is not responsible for busing school choice students in from out of district.
“You don’t get reimbursed for school choice busing, so you would need a good amount of students to come here from one town, but once you open up school choice, it is everywhere,” she said. “One bus to Worthington would be $42,000.”
Regarding Wyand’s math question, Fisk explained that the district’s foundation budget changes every year and that it more than covers the difference in the math.
Committee member Anne Marie Buikus of Montgomery stated that school choice funds would also go into the district’s general fund, meaning they can only go toward educational purposes.

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