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Funding for Mass. Schools Again Cut; Educators Bracing for MoreThis Fall

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State funding for Massachusetts schools has been cut for the second year in a row, and educators are preparing for even deeper reductions if voters there pass a tax roll-back initiative in November.

After months of debate over plans to balance the budget in a state where the economy continues to deteriorate, the legislature last month passed a scaled-down spending package that allots $1.52 billion for education--nearly $500 million less than funding for the last fiscal year.

The fiscal 1991 budget reduction comes on top of more than $300 million in cuts that were made in the previous year's education budget.

"The bottom line is, we lost a lot. It's not a pretty picture here,'' says Stephen K. Wollmer, director of communications for the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

But should voters pass the tax question in November, educators predict, the effects on the schools could be far more severe.

"When that happens, these reductions will look like nothing. It's going to be devastating for education," said Marie Fricker, a spokesman for the state education department.

Sponsored by Citizens for Limited Taxation, the initiative would roll back the state income tax from 5.75 percent to 5 percent, return state fees to 1988 levels, and repeal a package of tax hikes enacted this year.

Question 3, as the initiative is called, would cut $6.4 billion out of the state budget, currently $13.4 billion, over the next three years, education officials estimate. The citizens' group, however, pegs the maximum that would be cut at $4.5 billion.

Because half the state budget is earmarked for pension funds and other fixed costs, Mr. Wollmer explained, $2.1 billion this fiscal year would have to be cut from the approximately $6 billion available for all discretionary programs, including education.

The impending initiative is overshadowing all other issues at the moment, education officials said. For example, teachers in 57 school districts, as well as higher-education faculty, started the school year without a con "Ordinarily, that is big news," Mr. Wollmer observed.

The budget recently approved by the legislature, meanwhile, spared few education programs. Early-childhood education, magnet programs, equal-educational-opportunity grants, and vocational education will lose significant amounts of funding, Ms. Fricker said. No category received an increase, she noted, although funds for bond indebtedness and the school-lunch program remained stable.

While all school districts have experienced some hardship, observers said, the financial strain has been greatest on relatively poor districts.

A fifth of the staff in Weymouth has been laid off, for example, and two of the three high schools and a 500-pupil elementary school have been closed, according to Marcia Hanabury, president of the Weymouth Teachers Association.

Ms. Hanabury said her 5th-grade class, in a Chapter 1 school, will have more than 30 children, and the school will have no money for textbooks or library books.

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