Orange pushing ahead for more state school aid

  • Dexter Park Elementary School in Orange. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Kathy Reinig Submitted photo

Staff Writer
Published: 3/15/2019 4:15:01 PM

ORANGE — With talks of a potential property tax override, underfunded special education and high school costs, Orange is making a plea to the state for more money. 

The Orange Selectboard, Finance Committee and Elementary School Committee have now all endorsed an effort, headed by Finance Committee member Kathy Reinig, to pressure the state to give more money to rural schools and schools with a high percentage of special education students. Orange is both. 

Reinig has presented to the Selectboard her assessment that the town’s elementary schools are grossly underfunded, including in the area of special education by about $3.5 million. 

The plan is to lobby for extra state aid that would be given out over five years. In year one, Orange would ask for about $700,000 more for its elementary schools and $600,000 more for the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School. It would slowly close the gap between what Orange gets and what it actually needs, Reinig said. 

“We really need to fight for this,” Reinig said. 

Reinig has been contacting local representatives, including state Sens. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. SusannahWhipps, I-Athol, and has collected oral and written endorsements from municipal bodies. She said she is planning to go to the Statehouse for the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Monday to lobby on behalf of the town if possible. 

“Across the entire state, Chapter 70 is underfunded,” Reinig said, adding that a 2015 study from the state’s Foundation Budget Review Commission showed schools statewide were underfunded by more than $1 billion. 

The PROMISE Act is the state’s attempt to remedy the shortfall, and is being “fast-tracked” through the Statehouse, Reinig said, with hopes it will pass before the next budget year. The act would give an additional $1.1 billion to public schools over five years, so now is the time to fight for what Orange really needs over that span of time, Reinig said. 

The Chapter 70 (education aid) formula, established in the 1993 Education Reform Act, determines state funding for public schools. With talks in the Legislature of overhauling the 25-year-old formula, rural schools, like Orange, have pushed for a ruralness factor to be included in a future formula. The factor would give extra money to rural schools that experience higher costs in areas like transportation compared to their urban counterparts. 

Rural school districts across Franklin County have been grumbling about the underfunding, but Orange has another reason to take issue with the current formula: The portion of Chapter 70 that determines special education funding assumes the percentage of students who need special education rather than the actual number school by school,” Reinig said, hurting districts with a high percentage of special education students. 

In other words, the state “assumes” Orange’s in-district special education students represent 3.75 percent of total nonvocational enrollment. This means the state gives Orange enough money to educate 22 such students.

If the state polled Orange to find how many of these students the district has in reality, it would find Orange actually has 159 in-district special education students out of the 613 enrollment. It creates a gap in funding of around $3.5 million, Reinig has calculated. The town is compelled to make up this gap by dipping into other areas of its Chapter 70 funds, money that could be spent elsewhere. 

Last year, the Orange Elementary Schools — as well as Ralph C. Mahar Regional School and the municipality as a whole — struggled to put together a budget with increasing costs and revenues that couldn’t keep up. School officials specifically mentioned the mandated costs of special education as a challenge.

In the end, the elementary schools, as well as every other department in town, saw cuts to their requested budgets. Classes were lost, increasing the number of students per class. A kindergarten class was later restored with $50,000 in unexpected state aid that came after the school year had already begun. 

Education makes up about 55 percent of Orange’s total budget — this year $20,103,315. It thus creates pressure on other departments when the state underfunds education. 

Orange is in the bottom 5 percent of all Massachusetts municipalities in both per capita income and “equalized valuations,” a measure that assesses property and personal incomes. 

“I see the state as not only the best chance to survive the year, but actually start improving our situation,” Reinig said. 

Right now, Orange will have no choice but to cut the elementary schools’ requested budget — which was already slashed last year — without a tax override being voted and passed by residents. Since 2003, residents have faced a tax cap override four times, and all four times voted, ‘No.’

It is uncertain whether the state will listen at all, but Orange must try, Reinig said. 

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268. 




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