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New Money in Mass. Sparks Heated Local Bickering

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The first additional pot of money allocated by Massachusetts lawmakers for the public schools in the past three years has touched off a heated round of squabbling about how the funds should be spent and who should decide.

The sharpest protests are coming from the state's mayors. Arguing that the legislature's actions have taken away some of their traditional spending authority, local officials want the right to disburse at least some of the money themselves.

Boston school officials, meanwhile, are bickering over how that district's share will be spent. And teachers' unions are demanding that some of the new money fund raises for their members after a long dry spell.

The debate comes at a time when state officials, educators, and the business community are trying to pick up the pieces of a failed attempt to achieve a consensus in the state on the direction of education reform. Negotiations fell apart this past spring when Gov. William F. Weld and state lawmakers could not agree on financing a massive restructuring effort. (See Education Week, May 13, 1992.)

Local Control Backed

Since the legislature overrode Governor Weld's veto of the $184.8 million in new funding in late July, municipal leaders have complained that the state essentially bypassed local government in channeling the money directly to school districts.

Spearheaded by Mayor Raymond Flynn of Boston, local leaders contend that local governments should get the money to distribute as they see fit.

State funding for municipal governments--as well as for the schools--has eroded since the economy bottomed out in Massachusetts some four years ago. Local officials have had to provide services on fewer state dollars while staying within property-tax restrictions that permit revenue growth of only 2.5 percent annually.

Early last month, the Massachusetts Mayors Association adopted a resolution calling for lifting the restrictions on use of the funds.

Municipal officials say the state is attempting to usurp the powers of local government by earmarking funds for the schools, thus setting an unwelcome precedent.

"We have been accused of attempting to grab education money from schoolchildren; that is absolutely false,'' said John Robertson, a fiscal-policy analyst for the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

"We think that we should retain the right of how to determine the way money is spent,'' he continued. "As far as public schools are concerned, local government has made better decisions than the state has in the past three years.''

Local officials are particularly upset over the legislature's decision to give directly to the schools a total of $84.8 million in payments of about $100 for each public-school student in the state. The remaining $100 million is reserved for districts with below-average school spending.

'Shocked and Saddened'

In response to the municipal arguments, the state board of education adopted a resolution urging local officials to use the money exclusively for education. Moreover, the state board ordered cities and towns to document at the end of the fiscal year how all the money was spent.

Martin Kaplan, the chairman of the state board, said he was "absolutely shocked and saddened'' by local leaders' efforts to wrest money away from the schools.

"I don't think the legislature would have passed that aid if it were for trash collection or other municipal services,'' Mr. Kaplan said.

"I think the majority of people would say the state does have the responsibility over education that justified the earmarking of funds for that purpose,'' he added.

The dispute has given the Weld administration the opportunity to take a swipe at the legislature for failing to support the Governor's reform plan in exchange for the additional funding.

"The legislature was clearly irresponsible on this one,'' said Secretary of Education Piedad F. Robertson. "They asked for trouble by putting that money on the table without any kind of education agenda to go along with it.''

Boston's 'Political Football'

With public sentiment evidently on the side of the schools, Mayor Flynn has backed off from his initial demand to control the money and instead asked the Boston superintendent and school committee to put the district's $8.5 million share into vocational education and athletics.

As of late last month, the school committee and Superintendent Lois Harrison-Jones had largely obliged the mayor on the athletic front by doubling the sports budget.

But in some other areas, there were key differences between the superintendent's recommendations and the committee's financial priorities.

In general, Ms. Harrison-Jones wants to use the money to restore funding cuts in such areas as special education and student assignment, while the school committee is more interested in underwriting new early-childhood and other programs.

The two sides are now embroiled in a procedural dispute about whether Ms. Harrison-Jones has the right to submit a new set of recommendations for the committee to act on or whether the panel's changes merely constitute amendments.

"What is sort of disappointing is that it has become a political football between the two of them,'' said Paula Georges, the executive director of the Citywide Educational Coalition, a Boston advocacy group. "Why couldn't they have worked out a way to have this money be used to really set the tone for heading in a new direction?'' she lamented.

Teacher Raises Sought

Adding to the controversy are the demands of some teachers' union locals that some of the money be used to raise salaries.

Approximately 125 teacher contracts, or more than one-fourth of the statewide total, remained open as of late last month. That level is up to 40 percent higher than usual, according to the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Many teachers in the state have gone two years without a raise. Those who did get an increase last year received an average of 2.2 percent, union officials said, in contrast with a national average of 3.6 percent.

"This $185 million certainly should not all go toward salary increases,'' said Robert J. Murphy, the president of the MTA "There are places where class sizes need to be reduced or where teachers need to be hired back and programs restored.''

"On the other hand, in places where teachers have gone without salary increases and been asked to hold off,'' he continued, "we're saying they ought to at least discuss it in some way and not allow teachers to lose more ground.''

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