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Published in Print: February 13, 1991, as Weld Plan Would Cut School Aid, Eliminate Board

Weld Plan Would Cut School Aid, Eliminate Board

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Barely a month after assuming office, Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts has proposed sweeping budgetary and governance changes that could transform the face of education in the Bay State.

The new Republican Governor, who faces one of the nation's biggest budget deficits, has called both for cutting hundreds of millions of dollars out of education and for abolishing the Board of Education of the state where the lay-governing concept originated.

His proposals, many of which were filed as legislation last week, would cut $7.6 million from state education spending between now and the end of the fiscal year in June, and another $108.9 million in the coming fiscal year.

Even more threatening, in the eyes of many educators, Mr. Weld has called for cutting $250 million next year from state aid to local governments. Localities use a majority of those funds for schools.

The proposed cuts would be in addition to $499 million in state-aid losses to education since July 1989, representing 20 percent of the entire education budget.

Mr. Weld's proposed overhaul of the education system would replace the Board of Education, which oversees K-12 education, and the Board of Regents, the higher-education governing body, with a secretariat reporting directly to the governor.

"We believe this is going to save education," said Virginia Buckingham, an assistant press secretary to Mr. Weld.

Released to the public late last month, the proposals have infuriated some members of the education community.

The initiative is "an unfair, ill-conceived, all-out assault on the students and educators of Massachusetts," charged Rosanne K. Bacon, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

But other educators have reacted cautiously to the reorganization proposal, saying they prefer to await additional details before writing off the package.

"Nobody has been given any information," said Representative Mark Roosevelt, chairman of the House education committee. "These are not fleshed-out plans."

Mr. Weld vowed to downsize state government both in his underdog gubernatorial campaign and in his inaugural address. "Today we are saddled with bureaucracies 50 years out of date--sluggish and centralized, in which hierarchies rule and orders are issued from the top of a power pyramid," he said last month.

In place of that archaic system, he said, the state needs to create a new form of "entrepreneurial government."

Since that speech, the fiscal crisis with which Mr. Weld must contend has gotten even worse. Administration figures now place the deficit at $850 million for the next five months, while the fiscal 1992 gap is pegged at $1.8 billion.

A portion of the gap is based on the potential loss of revenue from a rollback sought by the Governor of a sales tax on professional services. The legislature has already agreed to delay implementation of the tax, which Mr. Weld has likened to "economic suicide."

Mr. Weld also views reorganization of education as a money-saving measure. He estimates that the state could save $74.8 million through a staff reduction of 1,000.

Under the Governor's plan, a secretary of education would be part of the cabinet, reporting directly to the chief executive. Answering to the secretary would be a commissioner of education, responsible for K-12, and a chancellor of higher education.

The current K-12 system, begun in 1837 and followed in large part by 48 other states, has a lay board that governs the department of education. The commissioner is appointed by and reports to the board, whose members are appointed by the governor.

Ms. Buckingham argued that the proposed reorganization would actually "elevate the status of education within state government."

"Giving the secretary the fiscal responsibility for managing the system will not only help the quality of the system but the efficiency of the system," she added.

Members of the education community said they are still trying to determine what the impact of a reorganization of the administration and governance of education would be.

"I haven't yet figured out how I feel about it," said Representative Roosevelt. He added, however, that he felt that it was inappropriate to include such a major change in education policy in an emergency budget package.

Commissioner of Education Harold Raynolds Jr. expressed concern that the proposed changes could take away the protection from shifting political winds given education by the current governance system.

"A governor could come in and jerk the whole thing around any time he or she wanted to," Mr. Raynolds warned. "One of the tragic things about public education in all states is the lack of certainty about funding each year. Now if you have this kind of change ... you add another uncertainty."

Although the Governor's "Emergency Plan for Fiscal Recovery" would make substantial reductions in the education budget, other state programs would experience even larger cuts. Health and human services, for example, has been slated for $214 million in cuts this year and $618.8 million in the following round.

Nor would education be the only area to undergo reorganization. For example, Mr. Weld has proposed combining five separate police departments into a single administrative entity.

The lion's share of education cuts for this fiscal year would come out of higher education, which would lose all but $800,000 of the planned $7.6-million reduction.

To achieve the $800,000 saving in the K-12 budget, Mr. Weld would shut down the remaining two regional centers operated by the state education department and lay off 26 staff members who teach in institutional settings.

Even though K-12 would be relatively spared for the remainder of this year, next year it would not be nearly as fortunate.

Among the programs Mr. Weld wants to reduce or eliminate are an essential-skills program aimed at dropout prevention, a literacy program, a basic-skills program for adults, and a teacher-development program used for training staff in schools undergoing restructuring.

Statewide student testing would be suspended for a year, and the education-department staff would be cut to obtain a savings of $837,000.

The Governor has not abandoned at-risk students, according to Ms. Buckingham, but instead will seek ways to deliver the services more efficiently and effectively.

But next year's proposed cutback in local aid--$250 million out of a $980-million base--is what educa8tors say worries them most.

"What it means to an individual school district is a $20-million loss to Boston and commensurate losses across the board," warned Commissioner Raynolds. "That means very, very devastating reductions in staff."

The Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in the Dorchester section of Boston provides an example of the buffeting some schools are getting from all directions. On top of current and potential losses in state aid, the city is ordering cuts.

Moreover, explained Steven C. Leonard, the school's principal, the restructured school's grant from the state's equal-education-opportunity program is endangered. Although the grants themselves have not been cut, districts receiving them must maintain their level of funding to the schools to continue eligibility.

The school, which practices site-based management, finally got real budget-making authority this year--only to use it to cut 10 of its 30 regular teachers, Mr. Leonard said.

"In a nutshell, it will destroy the last four years of work here," he added.

The school, Mr. Leonard fears, will revert from the positive learning environment that had been fostered in a gang-infested neighborhood to "a custodial building where we will essentially be warehousing children."

To offer some relief to localities, the Governor will recommend the repeal of some state mandates that will save $195.4 million, Ms. Buckingham said.

Mr. Weld also plans to seek to ease special-education requirements so that districts will not be required to pay for special services for students with disciplinary problems. The change will result in a $54-million savings for communities, Ms. Buckingham said.

Schools struggling to cope with state spending cuts will not be able in many cases to turn to local property owners for relief. Under the state's Proposition 2, communities are restricted to annual increases of 2.5 percent to cover municipal as well as school expenditures.

A majority of voters can override the tax curb, but "the track record of that over the past years has not been very good," said Paul H. Gorden, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

If the cuts are enacted, Mr. Gorden said, all districts can do is eliminate or scale back programs and staff because they must meet their contractual agreements.

The budget proposal has also revived interest in a finance-equity lawsuit that has been dormant for several years.

Filed in the early 1980's, the lawsuit was undertaken on behalf of students in 12 school districts, who contended that they received lesser educations due to inequitable funding. The legislature responded by creating equal-education-opportunity grants targeted primarily at the low-wealth districts.

During the past three years, however, the funding level for the grants has not been increased. "Now [the suit] has been reactivated because of these terrible financial problems," Mr. Raynolds said.

Vol. 10, Issue 21, Page 1, 22

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