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Panel Urges Emergency Aid for Troubled Mass. Districts

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Schools in several Massachusetts communities are in "deplorable" condition and will not improve without emergency assistance and a long-term state effort to ensure that all districts have adequate funding, a state Department of Education panel has concluded.

The state needs also to set minimum standards for the condition of school districts and to put districts that fail to meet them into receivership, the panel said.

The panel brought these and other recommendations for improving the condition of financially distressed school districts before the state Board of Education last week after visiting schools in four districts where officials had complained of having to make severe budget cuts.

Schools in Brockton, Chelsea, Holyoke, and Lawrence are experiencing severe classroom overcrowding, supply shortages, and other problems, and other districts in the recession-racked state probably are facing similar conditions, the panel said.

The panel said its proposals "will require a commitment on the part of the Commonwealth to modifying the manner in which schools are financed, as well as the immediate identification of funds to alleviate the current situation."

'Deplorable Conditions' Found

Asserting that providing immediate aid without bringing systemic changes "would be an incomplete response," the panel placed top priority on its recommendations for longterm, systemic change in the finance system.

Even so, the panel added that "systemic changes will not address the often deplorable conditions under which students in the communities we visited (and no doubt other communities in the Commonwealth) are being educated in the current fiscal year."

The panel found that the cuts had resulted in large-scale teacher layoffs, class sizes of 40 or more, and severe cutbacks in vocational education, athletics, and other programs.

In several schools, the competition over scarce resources has lowered staff morale and exacerbated racial tensions, the panel found.

The panel recommended that the state identify sources of emergency funding for hard-pressed districts by Jan. 1 and provide grants to lowspending districts to deal with specific problems such as textbook shortages, crowded classrooms, declines in per-pupil spending, or dwindling support services.

The panel suggested the state provide the emergency funding by restoring $42 million in Equal Education Opportunity grants for poor districts cut from the budget.

For the long term, the panel said the state should establish a basic funding level for each district and provide aid to make up shortfalls in those communities where school funding falls below minimum levels.

The panel also recommended that the state establish certain benchmarks for the condition of schools, such as maximum class sizes for all programs and minimum per-pupil spending in instructional materials, support services, and other areas.

The state board should be given authority to place districts in educational receivership if they do not meet minimum funding levels or fail to comply with state benchmarks for school conditions, the report urges.

Noting that they were "shocked" by the condition of school buildings in the communities they visited, panel members also recommended providing new funding for school construction and renovation.

Lower Quality Acknowledged

In a separate development seen as likely to generate support for the panel's recommendations, lawyers for the state attorney general conceded last month in state Supreme Judicial Court that children in several of the state's poorest cities and towns are receiving a public education that was inferior to that offered in wealthier areas.

The court is expected to hear arguments in the state's long-running finance-equity case, McDuffy v. Robertson, in four to six months.

In a 200-page stipulation submitted jointly with the plaintiffs, lawyers for the state said students in several poor districts--including three of the four studied by the departmental panel--are being offered "significantly fewer educational opportunities and a lower educational quality" than school students in wealthier communities.

While some districts spent less than $4,000 per student during the last school year, other districts, such as Concord, were spending more than $7,000 per student, according to state figures.

"When you go to Lawrence High School you see 45 students in a chemistry class, all of whom have books but not the same books, not all of whom have chairs," said Robert H. Blumenthal, a lawyer for the state department who coordinated the panel's report and represents the state in the equity case.

"That is how serious the need is," Mr. Blumenthal said, adding that similar conditions exist in the other schools studied and others that were not visited by the state panel.

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