Massachusetts school committees demand reimbursement for COVID-19 costs

Doug Page

One hundred and forty Bay State school committees, which oversee local school districts, are demanding the Commonwealth reimburse them for expenses they’ll incur to abide by its requirements for reopening their schools amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our primary concern is the money,” said Peter Demling, vice chair of the Amherst School Committee, who oversaw the drafting of a petition sent to Gov. Charlie Baker, state Secretary of Education James Peyser, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary (DESE) Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, and Massachusetts legislative leaders Karen Spilka, the Senate president, Robert DeLeo, the House speaker, and Joint Education Committee Co-Chairs Jason Lewis and Alice Peisch. “There’s the (federal) CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act), which has already provided funds and there’s the additional $200 million in competitive grants.”

“It’s a good start but it falls far short of what we need which is to guarantee the safety of our staff and students. What this boils down to is who’s holding the bag,” he added.

School committees joining the petition include Wellesley, Westwood, Concord-Carlisle, Medfield, Wayland, Winchester, Natick, Lexington, Hopkinton, Holliston, Millbury, Holyoke, Framingham, Ashland, Quincy, Springfield, Worcester, Needham, Norwood, Revere, Ludlow, Pittsfield, North Attleborough and the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee, to name a few.

Demling describes the school committees joining the petition as running “the gamut of rich and poor and across the state and that should send a clear message to the state legislature that they need to guarantee the money.”

As this group of school committees sees the future, DESE, which oversees the Commonwealth’s K-12 public schools, through its guidance document that details requirements schools must follow to reopen for the upcoming academic year, forces school districts into making what Demling terms a “Sophie’s Choice.”

“There’s what we can afford versus what we know is safest for our staff and students,” he said. “It’s wrong for the state to put us in that position.”

“Schools shouldn’t have to cover the shortfalls,” he said, further describing DESE’s requirements as an “unfunded mandate.”

“We don’t know what the final bill for COVID-19 will be,” said Demling. “It’s cleaning, extra staff, any adjustments to (school) buildings for social distancing, like building partitions in some classrooms. It’s also technology and professional development for our teachers in case we need to go fully remote (teaching kids at home via a digital provider) if pandemic conditions change.”

School committees, he said, “have to go back to our communities and say we’re doing it safely, but without the cash from the state, it’s a tough position to be in.”

The Bay State’s K-12 public schools are funded two ways, through Chapter 70 funds, which come from the Commonwealth, and local taxes from towns and districts.

“The budget is a huge issue,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “School districts are making guesses about what kind of funding there will be from the Commonwealth.

“They don’t know if they’re going to see a 5, 10 or even 20 percent reduction in the money they receive from Chapter 70 funds,” he added, meaning it’s possible school districts may need to pick up more of the costs than previously.

Some of the fear school committees feel, he said, is due to how state tax revenues, which funds Chapter 70, look given the pandemic.

The Commonwealth’s Department of Revenue reported in June that, year-to-date, state tax collections were down 8.2 percent against the same time last year, $25.99 billion vs. $28.32 billion collected at the same time last year.

Chapter 70 funding is based on a school district’s financial need and its ability to fund its schools, says Tracy Novick, a field director at the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

The most well-to-do school districts, she said, are able to pay as much as 83 percent of their state school required budget, which is determined by DESE, while the most economically challenged ones can pay as much as 17 percent of their state school required budget.

On average, school committees fund about 40 percent of their state school required budget.

“The state, then, fills in the difference through Chapter 70 funding,” she said. “School districts have the ability to raise funds through their district and apply for federal grants.”

Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for state Secretary of Education Peyser, released a statement, saying the Commonwealth has allocated approximately $200 million from its federal Coronavirus Relief Fund for costs related to reopening public schools.

“Schools are eligible to receive up to $225 per student for eligible costs incurred due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, such as training for school staff, supplemental social and academic services, reconfiguration of school spaces, leasing of temporary facilities, and acquisition of health and hygiene supplies,” the statement said.

The Baker Administration, the statement said, “is providing to local cities and towns for COVID-19 response efforts. Other potential funding sources to support school reopening include $502 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund that had previously been allocated by Governor Charlie Baker to cities and towns, as well as $194 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grants.”

“The Administration is also committing $25 million in federal funds for a matching grant program to help school districts and charter schools close technology gaps that have inhibited remote learning for students and families who lack access to computers or internet connections,” the statement added.