In advance of Wednesday's state budget announcement by the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee, Senator James Timilty and State Representative Denise Garlick met with the Medfield School Committee Monday to discuss local aid and education funding.
Medfield's representatives shared some encouraging news regarding Chapter 70 funding, Circuit Breaker funding for special education and the state's commitment to education, which has been evident in the Governor's proposed budget.
"Senator [Timilty] and I are able to say we are cautiously optimistic Medfield is going to be level funded or more [in Chapter 70 funding]," Garlick said. "[That] is actually very good news for Medfield. The worst possible scenario is we would need to stand in front of you and say ‘sorry, none of the revenue projections work, there is going to be a cut.’ Given these difficult times, given that we’re looking at – since 2008 – a real recession in this Commonwealth that there’s this strong of a commitment to local aid and to Chapter 70 funding is very important. This is good news for the Medfield School Committee. ... You can move forward with a degree of confidence."
Garlick said the reason for early optimism in the state budget process is because Governor Deval Patrick has recommended about a $200 million increase in the state's education budget from last year.
"That’s a real Commitment on behalf of the legislature," Garlick said. ... "We are hoping to improve [Chapter 70 funding]."
Senator Timilty deemed April the "most critical month" in the state budget process and said Wednesday's budget announcement by the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee is a crucial component to what happens within the Senate in May.
"The most important day is going to be Wednesday when the House budget comes out," Timilty said. "[The House has] gone off a late March number and they come out with [a budget figure] that transpires when you get past April 15 and April 20 ... when you’ve had three weeks of what April has brought in for revenues that can be spent. It’s the most important month."
Timilty explained if the state has a "very good April" in terms of generating revenue, than Chapter 70 and other local aid may see an increase because the Commonwealth's revenue exceeded projections. While that sounds like good news for communities like Medfield, Timilty said additional funds to Chapter 70 funding typically goes to less affluent communities, labeling the process as "urban versus suburban," and calling the Chapter 70 process "an impossible formula."
"Chapter 70 and local aid is certainly a priority, without a doubt it is significant," Timilty said. "I don’t think that formula works for excellent communities the way it should. ... When there’s a [positive alteration to the projections] you will often see those funds go to communities that aren’t as affluent as Medfield because I think sometimes in the formula, they take a look at median house values or income and that can really penalize an excellent community in this way."
Timilty assured the committee that he would fight the "urban versus suburban fight" for his communities "every time" and that the Commonwealth is doing everything it can to properly aid and assist its communities.
"We are doing the best we can in what is a very difficult environment financially but it is also a tall order to take everybody and educate them to the best of their abilities," Timilty said. "I think we are doing well, but sometimes there’s a good level of frustration that excellent communities in the Commonwealth aren’t treated fairly [with Chapter 70 funding] and in many respects, it’s tough to get that message across up there [at the Statehouse]."
Medfield Superintendent of Schools Bob Maguire added, "about three quarters of the Commonwealth receive level funding for Chapter 70" and the fact that Medfield is talking about level funding in this economic environment is encouraging.
"It is a small percentage of communities that will see any part of that increase proposed," Maguire said. "All things considered, this is good news."
Garlick voiced further optimism regarding the fiscal year 2013 state education budget because she is leading the charge for an amendment to increase the state's special education funding for communities in the Commonwealth through what is commonly referred to as the "Circuit Breaker" fund.
"I know representative Garlick is already planning and working on an amendment on the floor on the special education circuit breaker, which would mean additional dollars to more communities, and certainly communities that I represent, including the town of Medfield," Timilty said.
Said Garlick: "The Circuit Breaker can be the best dollar for dollar value you are going to get. ... "It’s very important and I’m very honored to the spokesperson for that amendment because it is valuable to the communities and because I am the mother of a special needs child and I understand full well not only that we need resources to educate these children but we need to provide them to a community."
Garlick said while she is pleased with the information she has regarding state funding for the Circuit Breaker, the amendment's goal is to increase special education funding for communities like Medfield.
The Circuit Breaker formula for funding is based on the total cost of special education tuition, according to the Garlick. The state uses a ratio, which Garlick aims to increase to 75 percent, up from the program's current ratio of 60 percent.
That was encouraging news for the Medfield School District, according to Maguire.
"I think it’s a win-win for everybody," Maguire said. "It certainly provides funds for certainly some of our most needy students but it also is something that has been well-received in small communities like Medfield."
As for the rest of the presentation, Timilty and Garlick explained the budget process from the first step of receiving the governor's budget recommendation in January to the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.
Throughout the process, Medfield's representatives underlined April and May as the most important months because that's where the House and the Senate make their recommendations based on actual state revenue versus state revenue projections.
"The House budget comes out on Wednesday and we will have information, bring forth amendments and debate the budget," Garlick said. "Then it goes to the Senate. The Senate perhaps has more information, we might have better revenue projections at that time and that number may change somewhat. What you often hear in January is the governor’s budget.”
Timilty explained the governor's budget recommendation in January is typically viewed as a "conversation starter" for the next fiscal year.
"You can get an idea of what transpired over the last year," Timilty said. "In this number the governor has, there are also some what ifs and maybes in terms of what he has. He’s going off of consensus revenue projection and has also added in some revenue that isn’t necessarily going to be there."
Garlick said the purpose of their presentation was to give people a better understanding of the process and why the governor’s budget in January can be different in May.
"I’m hopeful [that the presentation was] helpful [so people] at least see what the budget process is so [they] don’t get thrown off when [they] hear the governor’s projections," Garlick said. "It’s not the only [step in the process].”
Above all else, the most important piece of information the school committee cautiously took from Monday's meeting with its representatives was there's a strong commitment to education and local aid, which will benefit Medfield moving forward.
"We know how difficult it is to develop a new revenue source," Garlick said. "What we’ve seen in the early part of the year is revenues ahead of the projections and then we run into a plateau period. Every budget is a reflection of our values and what you’re seeing in this budget is a real value being placed on education in the Commonwealth."
Notes: State Representative was invited to attend Monday's School Committee meeting but had a scheduling conflict and was unable to attend. ... Medfield Town Administrator Michael Sullivan, Board of Selectmen chair Ann Thompson and Board of Selectmen member Osler "Pete" Peterson were in attendance to hear the town's representatives' presentation.