November 9, 2009
The school committee will soon be developing a budget for the 2010-2011 school year (FY’11). One of the issues that has arisen from the consolidation discussion is the perceived inequity of the money that each of our seven towns is required to pay under the foundation portion of the school budget, as outlined in the Educational Reform Act of 1993. Generally, the foundation budget is the amount that a school district needs at a minimum to operate an educational system and is based on student enrollment (fourteen categories) as impacted by costs in eleven function areas. It’s also important to realize that these categories are based upon an ‘average’ school district which, under the state’s definitions, Gateway is not as we are too small, too rural and too regional to fit the state’s ideal.
As the state adjusts the foundation budget, this impacts the amount that each town must pay in assessments. Essentially, the state factors many items into the amount of the foundation budget that the towns pay, and those factors differ from town to town. Examples include the equalized valuation of all property in the town, property taxes as a percentage of total town revenue, the median income of residents in each town and the percentage of this income used to support the schools. Based upon all of this data, the state determines what each town should pay as a local contribution and that varies not only by the number of students from that town but the ability of that town to pay its educational assessment.
Thus, when Worthington residents imply that they’re paying much more than other towns in the district on a per pupil basis, they’re correct. However it’s important to keep in mind that the Chapter 70 formula, for all of its faults, did raise the funding standard for all schools. The state was able to do this by adjusting the amount paid by every town based partly on its ability to pay. This is much like the income tax whereby the wealthier pay a higher percentage of their income to support state and federal government activities, even if they don’t receive any additional benefits. In essence, just because a town pays more per student on one aspect of the district budget, they are not necessarily entitled to any special consideration in the expenditure of the district’s budget.
Two of the three portions of the town assessments are based strictly upon student numbers as determined by the March 1st student census, while the third portion is based upon the state’s determination of foundation spending and targeted local contributions. The state allows a district to change the third portion to assess strictly upon student population (and not account for the ability to pay) but that option must receive, each year it’s used, unanimous agreement by each town in the district. I should also point out that the minimum contribution did receive a major change several years ago that moved from average income in a town to median income in a town to help adjust to a more realistic assessment for those towns that have a small number of very wealthy individuals.
Despite these changes, the biggest problem facing the district’s towns is the continuing decline in the amount of state aid for education, as that’s the biggest determining factor in increasing town assessments for education.