Orange pushing ahead for more state school aid

  • Submitted photo Kathy Reinig, Orange Finance Committee member 

Staff Writer
Published: 3/15/2019 2:27:18 PM

ORANGE — With talks of a potential tax override, underfunded special education and high rural school costs, Orange is making its 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 funding to rural schools and schools with a high percentage of special education students — Orange is both. 

Reinig presented to the Selectboard Wednesday her findings 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 5 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 Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, and has collected verbal and written supports from municipal bodies. She said she is planning to go to the state house 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 state house, 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 Chapter 70 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 rurality factor to be included in a future formula. The rurality factor would give extra funds 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 uses an “assumed percentage,” 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, rather than using the assumed percentage, it would find Orange actually has 159 in-district special education students out of the entire 613 student body. It creates a gap in funding of around $3.5 million dollars, Reinig said. 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 added back with $50,000 in unexpected state aid that came after the school year had already begun. 

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

Orange is in the bottom 5 percent of all Massachusetts municipalities in both per capita income and EQV — the “equalized valuations” 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 been faced with a potential tax override four times, and all four times have 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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