Thursday, May 31, 2007

Patrick to lay out Education Roadmap to 2015

WRPI has an AP report that says Deval Patrick will roll out his ed plan at a UMASS-Boston commencement speech tomorrow, June 1st.

A Berkshire Eagle report a few days ago was titled Tight Lid on School Plan.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Nix Casinos

State Senator Dan Bosley gives a very credible economic argument against casinos over at Blue Mass Group.

A few details. Mass Lottery is among the most successful in the country, at $952 Million of revenues to towns. Connecticutt casinos only generate about $400 million, and the margin to the state for casinos is considerably slimmer than for the lottery, meaning about $7 of casino revenue would need to be generated for each $1 of lottery sales lost due to a casino.

As a math focused guy, I have to concur, if these numbers are close to correct. Mass Casinos would not create significant new state revenues.

Friday, May 25, 2007


A proposal from the state treasurer, probably acting with some leeway by the governor. The Wampanoags will be able to open a casino, Connecticutt already collects $1 Billion a year from Mass residents.

The legislature has opposed casinos, for a variety of reasons (moral, fiscal,economic).

Mass State Lottery generates a bit less than $1B a year, and is considered a slow-growth revenue source now.

An earlier op-ed by Derrick Jackson was titled "No Jackpot with Casino Gambling".

No comments from here, except that it fits in with the idea of the governor exploring all revenue options.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A series of columns about a rural school district in Massachusetts

The superintendent of the Gateway regional school has run a remarkable series of columns focusing on the squeeze on rural school districts, both financially and in terms of accountability.

The state budget issues are addressed in the following columns.

March 5
March 26
April 2nd
April 16
April 23
April 30
May 7
May 14th

And a couple on accountability issues, and the related budget issues.

March 12th
March 19th
April 9th
May 21 (current issue)

And a school committee appeal for the "R.E.D" circuit breaker, plus the proposed budget including consolidation of elementary schools.

I can't improve on Superintendent David Hopson's commentary on either budgets or accountability, and I recommend the whole series for anyone interested in the issues. Clearly, Gateway is a well administered district, in spite of its fiscal difficulties.

In terms of target local share, the Gateway Regional district will receive $244K below its target aid share next year, or 2.1% of its foundation budget less than the state says is equitable. This puts Gateway in the bottom 11 regional school districts in the state as far as aid shortfall; not as bad as Franklin County (2.6% of foundation), Wachusett (4.3%) Hampshire (4.7%), Hampden Wilbraham (7.6%). But two-thirds of the amount that could be saved by shuttering a couple town's elementary schools.

Three of the seven towns in the Gateway Regional pay required minimum contributions far above their target local share, one paying 32.4% over, and another paying 24.6% over, and a third pays 15.7% over. For all this overpaying, the required contributions plus state aid only amounts to 101.1% of foundation this year.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Rural Schools

Two articles today. One from The Republican, titled "Rural Schools Fighting Trend', can be found with a google search on that title. I haven't linked to the article because it's in Masslive's paid archives now.

Much of the article focuses on the Mohawk Regional, where a budget recommendation calls for closing three out of four elementary schools in an eight-town, 250 square mile district.

There is a big hitch to the consolidation plan. Closure of the three schools would only be viable if the state Legislature agrees to let towns that receive 75 percent reimbursement on bonds used to pay for school improvements off the hook over a provision that requires towns to pay the full payments if the schools are closed.

Buoniconti, a former technology teacher who took over the district in June 2005, is lobbying legislators to make that happen.

Buoniconti calls the financial situation at Mohawk and other districts like it "a death spiral."

The districts are rural, many residents have low incomes, and the population is declining. The enrollment in the Mohawk District has declined 22 percent in the last five years, mirroring population loss in that area.

"Mohawk has somehow managed to stay right under the edge, being able to sustain some pretty good educational performance while doing it on a shoestring. That can't go on forever," he said.


It becomes an education problem when you close a school and it causes a student to be on the bus for more than an hour. We're looking at an average 1½-hour bus ride for the average student from the most remote communities (Plainfield and Heath)," Buoniconti said.

Key point: there is a limit to consolidation. I think two towns is about the limit for a viable and sustaining elementary school, depending on local factors; lower than that, and the towns will be fighting a downward spiral simply to maintain their population and economic base.

The state's current policies on school choice and the foundation budget are not working well for rural areas. If nothing else, the state should be considering its own stranded costs for capital assets - the Sanderson Academy is a brand new school building - as well as the full extent of current and projected regional transportation costs. Are children who spend an average of an hour and a half a day on a bus getting an equal education? The state's current opinion seems to be that these areas simply are not self-sustaining and it isn't the state's problem, but perhaps it is time to figure out how to apply very small scale local schooling in an economical way; or until that can be achieved, at least apply a different scale factor on administrative costs and overhead in the foundation budget that is inversely proportional to feasible transportation times & costs.

The choice formula, also, isn't working for these declining population rural districts. Geography doesn't make these places attractive for choice schools - charter schools are located where the geography lends itself to inflow, and public choice goes the same direction. Not every place with favorable geography is a school choice nexus, but there are very few choice schools located in unfavorable places. Some of the kids living in the Mohawk district can attend choice schools that are more favorably located, but the cost to the kids left behind, and the local taxpayers and other local stakeholders, for following the state model exceeds the benefits to those opting out.

The state's mandate is to offer an equal education for all, even those in towns with unfavorable geography combined with unfavorable demographics.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Worcester Telegram Property taxes spark dissent

This one is a local article about a Republican at-large candidate running for city council, running on opposition to a property tax hike. But, as the article says, this taps into the same thread Deval Patrick tapped in the race for Governor last year, and which Patrick has put forward as a primary reason for reforming school funding - "The property tax is not working".

This Telegram article is not school focused, and does not touch on the state .vs. local tax issue; but I think it raises an important point. The property tax is again elevated in concern as it was prior to Prop 2.5, and the governor has framed this issue as one the governor should work to resolve.

I think this raises a conundrum. Voters want taxes cut across the board - state taxes, local taxes, federal taxes.

The governor's only concrete proposal on the table, local option taxes, are not big enough in scale to make a serious dent in this issue. They could help, but the median telephone pole tax, I calculate, is eight-tenths of one percent of local required minimums for schools. For about 50 towns, the telephone pole tax would be above 2% of school spending. A nice addition to local revenue, but not something I would call a bold and sweeping reform.

For Boston, my estimate is that the combination of telephone tax plus a 1% meal tax could amount to 7% of the local school bill, using the Globe's $20 million figure for a 1% sales tax on meals. That's enough to be worth Tom Menino's serious attention. But that's near the top of the list across the state.

But for a counter example, in Amherst, I think the numbers would come in at about one-fifth of the size of the property tax override that was defeated a couple weeks ago - with the small margin in the vote likely swayed by the governor's message that "the property tax isn't working". Amherst could certainly use the revenue diversification, but the governor's proposal won't solve their budget problems.

Or neighboring Granby, where the $1,305 for telephone pole property taxes compares with their $4 million local funding for schools. Granby is awaiting $442 thousand a year of additional Chapter 70 aid, when target local share is completed.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Waltham Times Op-Ed on Charter Schools

The Herald's op-ed yesterday was essentially cheerleading for charters. This one takes a more balanced view, and probes what charters should be trying to do, while also stating the editors consider charters are an education reform success.

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Talking Stoneham blog comments

on the Governor's Education Task Forces.

This is a serious blog focusing on Stoneham issues from a local government perspective. The blog entry focuses on process for the task forces.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Boston Herald Op-Ed on New Ed Plan

This one reporting on a charter school study by charter school proponents claiming charter schools test scores are higher than scores overall for the sending district, for subgroups.

I don't regularly read the paper copies of either the Globe or the Herald, and I'm relying on google searches to ferret out these news reports. I was curious why I had not found any Globe editorials or stories on Patrick's ed plan. I saw one story that references Winchester's struggles to maintain funding, using a private foundation to pay teacher's salaries, which Patrick has apparently pointed to as an example of over-reliance on the property tax for ed funding; plus a couple articles about the meals tax (I don't see the meals tax as a panacea for rural Mass, and think whatever new tax is proposed should be broadly based, statewide, and less regressive than sales & property taxes - but those are personal opinions that I see as tangential to the purpose of this blog).

Ah, here is a Globe report on Patrick's visit to Framingham.

Here's the simple fix for Framingham: accelerate target local share reform. The news article says Framingham is trying to close a $2 million funding gap. But the state's shortfall from Framingham's target local share is $7.9 million. Framingham will receive 20% of its foundation budget in state aid, but has a target aid share of 31%.

If the state simply equalized aid to comparable school districts, Framingham's budget problem would be resolved. Framingham's problem is on the same scale as Pelham's, Whately's, Westhampton's, and Lee's - that is, these districts have been shortchanged about as much as any municipality in the state for years, and continue to be shortchanged primarily because the main determining factor for this year's aid allocation is how much you got last year. Target local share establishes an "ideal" level of state support based on a town's aggregate wealth and school burden, but target local share is being phased in slowly, and relies on the continuing support of the legislature and the governor.

Patrick could make good on property tax relief for about half of the state's municipalities simply by following through on target share reform. Add in Winchester, Greenfield, Chicopee, Pittsfield, Chelmsford, Hatfield, Ludlow, Holden, Norwood, ...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Op Ed, Attleboro Sun Chronicle

An opinion piece from a mostly Republican slice of far-suburban southern Mass, speaking about a possible realigning deal on property taxes and state school funding appealing to the middle (Attleboro) rather than to the low end (Lawrence) or the high (Dover). Excerpts below.

Massachusetts politics: You've got to love it, like lately, when sources on both right and left are saying that Gov. Deval Patrick's property tax remedy plan won't work.

What's lovable about this - in the sense that you've got to love the absurdity of it, as the reality would be too much to bear - is that Patrick hasn't made his plan public yet. He has merely dropped a few hints that one is coming. The Sun Chronicle area's Republican lawmakers, as well as an array of sources on Beacon Hill, seem to be saying "whatever it is, it won't work."


We also believe an education funding shift is possible. There is a precedent in the area of public welfare, burdens of which the state relieved cities and towns in the early 1960s. And we believe that if Patrick and the Legislature don't act on their own, there will eventually be court action to force their hands. Other states have been forced into school funding reform when lawsuits demonstrated that students in different cities and towns received educations that were inequitable in quality. Massachusetts has made many adjustments, but it appears very much open to charges of inequity when the state has paid as much as 100 percent of the education costs in a Lawrence and only 10 percent in a Dover.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Governor Deval Patrick speaks about education in Framingham

  • Education reform. Patrick said the traditional structure of combining state aid and local property taxes to fund school systems is ineffective because it creates "disparate" and "unintended outcomes" from community to community. He said school boards should consider long-term planning through budgets lasting three to five years, instead of annual ones.

  • This is a different message, and one that appears to me more in line with the legislature's intention in target local share reform. One of the main reasons school boards can't plan three to five years ahead is that the state changes course, typically more than once each year, with changes coming as late as three months AFTER locales have to pass budget proposals. For a three year plan to work, the state would have to commit up front to three years of funding - both the aggregate amount, as well as what each school district could expect.

    But target local share at least takes a step in that direction, if the governor and the legislature stick to that plan. Target share seeks to correct disparate and unintended outcomes from community to community.

    Caveat; Framingham has been far on the short end of disparate outcomes in local aid, so, the governor was speaking to the local audience.

    Wednesday, May 09, 2007

    School Funding 2.0

    Our new governor, Deval Patrick, created a buzz about fixing the way Massachusetts pays for public schools. The only thing definite is the governor's opinion about property taxes, which was clearly articulated during the campaign, and repeated at the Mass Association of School Committees annual meeting:

    "The property tax is not working."
    I found a couple of analytic opinion pieces on this subject that are worth a look.
    One appeared in the Montague Reporter, entitled Ed Reform Creates a Wrecking Ball for Local Government, by the chair of the Montague finance committee. I concur with much of this article, though I think the author's conclusion that the state's wrecking ball falls hardest on places that already receive the most state aid only captures part of the picture. A couple other points, summarized in my words; the state should assure that its contributions keep up with the real rate of ed inflation, and cost containment should be part of any reform.

    Another is an op-ed in the Boston Herald, written by Edward Moscovitch of Cape Ann Economics. I disagree with Moscovitch's headline premise - that a statewide prop tax is the solution, to raise $4.7 billion of new state funds for education. But I respect Moscovitch's credentials, as the author of a study that I've quoted on other blogs before regarding No Child Left Behind and its impossible proficiency goals.

    Moscovitch offers a statewide property tax over other taxes available at the state level as being a more effective means of raising the required revenues, offering an exemption on the first $100,000 of valuation to make the tax more progressive, and another exemption for seniors. I think this is dancing around the problem of raising taxes at the state level, and there would be just as much or more revolt against a statewide property tax as against higher income tax rates. Patrick is not likely to be seen as fixing the problem he set out to fix if he replaces local property tax revenue with local property tax revenue collected from other towns. Particularly not in places like Gloucester, with very high property values but a perception that working class incomes are not matching those valuations. I think the only thing going for a statewide property tax is that property tax revenues are more consistent from year to year than the income tax, which is more cyclical. But I think there are other ways to solve that problem.

    Moscovitch also touches the subjects of the foundation budget actually reflecting education costs, and the subject of cost control:

    We should change the inflation adjustment factor to reflect actual Massachusetts health care and other costs (the current factor is based on national data) and raise the foundation budget to fit more closely what schools actually spend. When the extra costs this implies become a state responsibility, there would be a stronger incentive to address the problem - certainly by making sure that teachers received their health coverage through the more efficient state plan.
    My two cents on Patrick's likely direction: I suspect he wants to reevaluate the foundation budget, perhaps raising the foundation by about 10% and perhaps doing that in a way that better reflects No Child Left Behind mandates for subgroups; and he'd like to shift funding away from property taxes to state revenues. He's also said the charter school funding formula should be fixed, and presumably a comprehensive plan would include something to reduce the impact on local budgets there, as well.

    As far as my advocacy, I'd like the governor to make sure the existing commitment to equalize aid and burdens, particularly for regional school members, in the form of target share reform, is completed. About 100 towns that are members of regional schools face high property tax burdens for schools primarily because of errors in the existing state formulas, and regulations that propagate those errors into regional school "required minimum" contributions. In terms of the numbers, the state can accelerate the regulatory portion of target share reform, while reducing both the short term and the long term demands on state tax revenues, by focusing effort reduction on required contributions that are truly excessive next year.

    For example, if the governor's goal is to increase the foundation budget by 10%, then effort reduction could wipe out ALL excess effort above 110% of the current target local share, in a much more cost-effective way than following next year's proposed effort reduction. And the governor would have 100 more towns where he fixed the problem of excessive property tax burdens.