In The People's Blog, Updates from Jo

Two weeks ago, the Senate released S.2350 with an eye toward equitably increasing funding for public education because a child’s zip code should not determine the quality of their education. As part of how I’ll engage with this bill, I filed three amendments and am in the process of co-sponsoring others that are both relevant and important for the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district.

Amendment #27 tackles what’s known as Proposition 2½ which dictates how localities can raise property taxes. I’ve sounded the alarm about Prop. 2½ since I entered the Senate for two reasons: Some of my towns are bumping up against what’s called the Prop. 2½ ceiling and some of my towns have the highest tax rate in the Commonwealth. The main driver of both is education spending.

Under Prop. 2½, a municipality is subject to two property tax limits:

  • Ceiling: The total annual property tax revenue raised by a municipality shall not exceed 2.5 percent of the assessed value of all taxable property contained in it.
  • Increase limit: The annual increase of property tax cannot exceed 2.5 percent, plus the amount attributable to taxes that are from new real property.

Recently a regional newspaper published the 100 towns with the highest property tax rates. Out of the top 10, five are in my district:

  • Shutesbury -2019 tax rate: $23.26
  • Wendell -2019 tax rate: $22.617.
  • Orange -2019 tax rate: $22.528.
  • Greenfield -2019 tax rate: $22.361.
  • Amherst -2019 tax rate: $21.80

And two more of my towns are in the top 20:

  • Pelham -2019 tax rate: $21.59
  • Leverett -2019 tax rate: $20.89
Amendment #28 tackles special education funding. The current assumption is that the special education enrollment reimbursement rate is 3.75 percent, which means an assumption of 15 percent of special education students in each district receiving special education services roughly 25 percent of the time. The Foundation Budget Review Commission recommended that this be changed to four percent and 16 percent, respectively. This is a necessary increase, however it does not come close to meeting the needs in my district. The vast majority of schools in my district run special education averages which far exceed the current 15 percent assumption with Orange at 26.8 percent, Athol Royalston at 26 percent, and Gill Montague at 24 percent. Not surprisingly, the schools in my district with the highest special education numbers also have the highest poverty levels, as well as other indicators of community distress such as opioid use and related deaths. Getting SPED funding right is an equity imperative.

This Amendment:

  • Immediately increases “assumed in-school education enrollment,” from 4 percent to 5 percent.
  • Instructs that DESE report on special educational financing and assumed in-school educational enrollment, to examine if estimated special education enrollment and projected staffing requirements sufficiently address the actual costs of school districts.

The report would include:

  • The average number of students on IEPs over the last decade in all districts, and the impact of SPED enrollment assumptions on those districts
  • An investigation of drivers special education enrollment rates and outliers in respective districts
  • A survey of superintendents to determine whether the assumption that each in-district SPED student requires 1/4 FTE is accurate, and that assumption’s impact on school finances
  • A survey of best practices for determining special education funding requirements, including accurate special education enrollment, costs and requisite staffing

Amendment #29 proposes the creation of a Charter School Policy Review Commission. This commission would study the fiscal and educational impact of the Commonwealth’s policy for charter schools and make recommendations in the form of legislation for equitably maximizing educational achievement for all students in the Commonwealth.

I have received emails suggesting that this amendment pits families against each other. Quite to the contrary, this amendment puts the work of sorting out how charter and district schools relate back on the state, where it belongs.

Right now, tensions between charter and district families and staff play out at the local level, largely in venues like social media. I suggest that’s not as productive as mandating that a broad group of stakeholders delve deeply into this issue along a tight timeline.

Even with full funding of charter mitigation, the difficulties in relationships and protracted local impact will not go away without careful, respectful, nuanced study and discussion, like that proposed in Amendment #29.

I see the commission as a fair way forward through this difficult issue.

Since taking office, I have visited three charter schools in the Hampshire, Franklin, Worcester district—to meet the faculty, staff, and students.

I have listened deeply to the strong feelings and beliefs held by charter and district families and have made it publicly clear that I see absolutely no benefit in demonizing individual choices.

I do see a benefit, however, in the state taking responsibility for the local impact of its decisions, which this commission seeks to do—again in a way that I hope will be fair to all.

I believe that shining light on these issues will improve educational opportunities for all students, regardless of whether they are schooled in traditional public schools or in charter schools. Without studying the issues, we risk continuing on the same unsustainable path that we have been on for years.

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