Effects of Proposition 2 1/2 Squeez Mass. Budgets

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After a series of "amicable" negotiations this year, the mayor and city council of Brockton, Mass., reluctantly agreed to bail the school district out of a $1-million budget deficit, with an understanding that there would be no future bailouts.

But the Brockton School Committee anticipates it will need $3.5 million more than its fiscal 1984 budget, and with no hope of help from the city, the committee is turning to the state for the revenue. The response so far has not been favorable, school officials say.

Without the additional funds, the Brockton district--the fourth largest in Massachusetts--will be forced to lay off 150 teachers, to close five schools, and to eliminate basic-education programs, the officials say. Since 1980, the district has laid off 442 teachers and reduced the staff in the central administration to five people, according to Superintendent of Schools Thomas J. Whalen.

Brockton is only one of a number of Massachusetts districts struggling to avoid budget deficits, and several of them have not encountered the kind of cooperation from city leaders that the Brockton school officials have.

Met To Express Concerns

School-district administrators from 11 of these financially pressed communities, including Brockton, Lynn, Quincy, and Worcester, met recently with Gov. Michael S. Dukakis's special assistant for education to express their concerns about next year's financing of their programs. They contended that the schools have been the hardest hit by Proposition 2--the property-tax-limitation measure approved by the voters in 1980 and implemented in 1981.

Moreover, the district officials argued, the state should do more to help them out of their budget problems, which they said result mainly from the fact that they no longer have control over school funding.

Under Proposition 2, school committees have lost fiscal autonomy, and in many of the communities the mayor alone is setting the school budget, say school officials.

"Proposition 2 has put extraordinary authority in the local mayor's office," said Lawrence P. Creedon, superintendent in Quincy. Describing the mayor as "a financial czar" is not overstating it, he said.

Assistance Offered

Governor Dukakis has offered to assist the districts by advancing them some of their 1984 school-aid payments and deferring certain loan repayments. But Mr. Creedon says that despite the attractiveness of the Governor's proposed initiatives, the school committees are not authorized to accept the offer. A school committee can only request that the mayor consider the Governor's offer, he said, and there is not much community support for that approach.

The mayor of Lynn presented his school committee with a $24.2-million budget and has filed suit in Essex Superior Court to force school officials to prepare a budget within the limits he has proposed. The superintendent is requesting $29 million, according to Alfred Bresnahan, the Lynn school district's deputy superintendent for business. "They're not even supposed to discuss [a $29-million budget] in public," he added.

"We've cut past the bone ... and if we go through this again we'll really be in trouble," Mr. Bresnahan said. The school committee would like to accept the Governor's offer, he said, but "the [city] council does not want to because it's an election year."

"We've tried to educate the people [about the consequences of Proposition 2]," Mr. Bresnahan said, "but everybody's happy because their taxes are less, except those whose children are in crowded schools."

In Lynn, the property-tax revenue was reduced by $5.5 million in 1981; that same year, the school budget was cut by $5-million to about $24 million, according to Mr. Bresnahan. "It's all being absorbed by the schools," he asserted.

In Quincy, the mayor and city council were required to reduce municipal spending by $18.7 million in the first year of Proposition 2; $8.2 million of that came from the school budget. Despite an $11-million allocation from the state to offset the loss of property-tax revenues, ''the schools got none of that money," according to Carmen M. Mariano, research assistant for the Quincy school district.

The assertion that the schools are bearing the brunt of Propostion 2 is supported by a report prepared by the Massachusetts Department of Education earlier this year that showed a $136-million reduction in local school spending in the first year of Proposition 2 and, at the same time, a $28-million increase in expenditures for other services. (See Education Week, Feb. 9, 1983.)

Although there are few people who challenge those figures, "there is disagreement about how to interpret the numbers," according to Donna McDaniel, editor of Impact: 2, a newsletter published twice monthly by the Proposition 2 Monitoring Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"There are a lot of people who feel those cuts were overdue, that the schools had the most room to trim," Ms. McDaniel said. "There are some people who dispute that it represents a severe reduction, when you take into account the decline in student enrollment."

But educational groups in the state argue that the funding reductions for the schools bear no relationship to the rate of the decline in student enrollment anyway, according to Ms. McDaniels.

The representatives from the 11 communities estimate that they will need a combined total of $35 million in additional funds for the next school year to maintain school services at this year's level, according to Gerard Indelicato, the Governor's special assistant for education. But that money is not available in the Governor's budget, he said.

Meanwhile, Governor Dukakis's proposed $157-million increase in state aid for fiscal 1984 has not yet been approved by the legislature.

None of the 11 communities have indicated that they will accept the Governor's offer to advance state-aid payments and defer state-loan payments, nor have their mayors and councils shown interest in spreading the third--and last--year of the scheduled property-tax reduction mandated under Proposition 2 over a two-year period, said Mr. Indelicato, referring to a proposal made by the Governor earlier this year that was rejected by the legislature. Under the tax-limitation measure, localities were to roll back their tax rates over a three-year period; the next annual reduction will lower them by 15 percent.

According to Mr. Whalen of Brockton, the Governor's proposed loan for the communities at 8-percent interest would only "postpone the inevitable." "Most of us felt that if we could get through this year, then we could save ourselves from irreversible and irreparable damage," he said.

"But we were told that there was no more additional state aid and that we would have to fend the best we could," Mr. Whalen said.

"What came out in the meeting from my perspective," Mr. Indelicato said, "was a very clear picture of the differences in the cities and towns and the amounts of money they spend on the schools."

But, he added, what remains unclear is what the impact of the funding cuts will be on educational programs in each of the communities.

According to Mr. Indelicato, the Governor has asked the state commissioner of education "to look at those communities with disproportionate cuts in education" and to determine "what's taking place."

Vol. 02, Issue 36

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