House budget boosts ed aid

By Heather Goldin 
Statehouse Correspondent

BOSTON — Although state legislators are happy with the added education funding in the House version of the fiscal 2017 state budget, local school officials say they need more money for specific programs — from mental-health counseling to additional technology.

“There is not a specific (fund) for technology costs in districts,” said Littleton School Superintendent Kelly Clenchy, whose district provides Google Chromebooks, iPads and MacBook computers for students. “The continued replenishment and purchase of the hardware is important.”

The House fiscal 2017 budget, unanimously approved Wednesday, allots $159 million more for local aid than the governor’s version, including $4.61 billion for Chapter 70 funding. Last year the Legislature budgeted $3.83 billion for Chapter 70 aid.

Municipalities in the Lowell area received more funding for education as well.

The House plan gives Littleton $3.9 million — an increase of $54,985.

Despite similar increases, superintendents in the Lowell area see additional gaps in the budget.

Billerica Superintendent Tim Piwowar said that the House’s proposed increase is still “woefully underfunded,” underestimating employee benefit costs by 140 percent according to a 2015 review of the state foundation budget, which includes a formula for various costs to fund the commonwealth.

“This is only a drop in the bucket compared to the budget recommendation from the Foundation Review Budget Report,” he said.

Piwowar added that the $180,670 increase in Chapter 70 aid for Billerica doesn’t impact how the school district budgets for fiscal 17, since the town’s budget is determined long before the state budget is finalized. If anything, additional funding would operate as unexpected cash for the academic year.

Westford Schools Auperintendent Everett “Bill” Olsen said that although increases are helpful, his school district could use more funding for students experiencing mental-health problems.

“(Additional funding) would allow us to take a look at some of our current and emerging priorities,” he said. Olsen, whose district received an additional $171,780 in the House proposal, said he understood that the House has only so much money to work with.

“The state has limitations on revenue collections,” he said. “We’re grateful to the Legislature (and) the governor for increases and hopefully they will be passed.”

Wednesday’s 156-0 vote in the Democratic-controlled House followed three days of largely choreographed discussions, during which lawmakers added about $76 million in spending for programs ranging from education to transportation to public health.

Lawmakers held closed-door meetings to consolidate many of the more than 1,300 amendments that were originally proposed to the budget. The consolidated amendments were then approved by the full House with minimal debate.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the budget was a fiscally responsible and thoughtful document.

The budget creates a $15 million reserve account to pay for salary increases for pre-kindergarten teachers and incudes $18.6 million to support full-day kindergarten programs.

It would also add $28 million for substance-addiction programs.

Republicans, who often vote against Democratic-backed spending plans, joined in Wednesday’s unanimous vote.

“I’m very pleased that the House budget places a priority on local aid for our cities and towns,” said Rep. Bradley Jones, the House minority leader. “I think there was a good faith effort to try to address a wide range of issues, while still maintaining an eye on the bottom line.”

House leaders stressed that for a second consecutive year they did not rely on any direct transfers from the state’s stabilization fund, better known as the rainy day fund, to help balance the budget. More than $200 million in capital gains tax revenue would be deposited into the fund, though another $150 million in capital gains taxes would be diverted to the general fund.

The independent Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, among other groups, has warned that the state is not moving fast enough to replenish its reserve fund, which was depleted during the Great Recession. That could leave the state vulnerable to another economic downturn.

Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg has said the state needs new sources of revenue to strengthen education and shore up the state’s transportation infrastructure, but Baker and DeLeo have steadfastly opposed new taxes. Under the state constitution, the Senate cannot initiate tax bills on its own.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Education aid:

Local municipalities that would receive more Chapter 70 (education) money in the House budget proposal compared with Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal, and how much more:

Billerica: $180,670

Chelmsford: $173,950

Dracut: $133,945

Littleton: $54,985

Tewksbury: $123,305

Tyngsboro: $59,330

Westford: $171,780

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