Public Policy Update: Highlights from the Joint Committee on Ways and Means FY25 hearing on local and education aid

On Friday, March 1, the Joint Committee on Ways and Means regarding education and local aid at Greenfield Community College. Archived video of the six and a half hour hearing can be viewed here.

President Mildred Lefebvre offered testimony in concert with MASS on behalf of the Association. The video of her testimony may be viewed below.


Focusing specifically on items of interest to members, we provide the following highlights:

School committee members and superintendents from rural schools greeted those entering the hearing with brochures and advocacy, which was spoken of by Senator Jo Comerford in her words of welcome.

In his opening remarks, Secretary Patrick Tutwiler again emphasized the themes of “stabilize, heal, transform” as he has since the opening of his service. He noted the accomplishments of the current year–universal free lunch, expanded supports for mental health, expansions of both early college and innovation pathways–and recently announced plans for the future, including the expansion of preschool in Gateway cities and the literacy initiative.

Additionally, in his remarks, outgoing Commissioner Jeffrey Riley noted the IEP improvement project, the passage and implementation of new health and physical education state standards, and the work districts are doing with migrant and refugee students. In responding to questions, Commissioner Riley also said that the demographics of the state are changing, with poverty among students about as high as has been seen.

Asked by Senator Cronin about vocational admission, Riley said the Department is coming up with a tool “allowing us to intervene in a way that we’ve never done before” and “I expect that you will see interventions from the state in places where we think there is an issue around fairness.”

Asked by Senator Lewis, regarding literacy, “don’t we need to do more, not just a carrot, but take…stronger steps to ensure all of our districts get the benefit of highest quality literacy instruction?” Secretary Tutwiler reiterated the support the administration plans to offer district regarding financial support for adoption of curriculum and professional development for teachers. Riley added that part of why he is stepping down is that he thinks the Department needs leadership over the next several years that is prepared to “go all out eighty hours a week” on such an effort.

Rep. Blais reflected back to the rural schools advocacy, asking if Chapter 70 was the only assistance available to rural schools. Secretary Tutwiler underlined the sustained tripling of aid for the rural schools account line this year (it was raised to $15M last year), saying he was open to partnering to develop a solution while also acknowledging the challenges of declining enrollment.

In closing questions for this panel, Senator Comerford said, “I would suggest with every ounce of respect I can muster: Chapter 70 must be reopened” noting the conditions of school district budgets in her own district. In response, Tutwiler said, “I hear that pain; I see and read that impact…I am ready to follow the Legislature; we’re ready to sit down at the table and have that conversation…if the Legislature has the appetite for a working group, we would be willing partners.”

In their jointly offered testimony, AFT and MTA both emphasized the concern regarding the inflation rate in the foundation budget,: “in years when inflation is low, it makes sense” and has been the practice to add back inflation of higher period. If this is not done, they said, it could lead to real pain and undo good of the Student Opportunity Act.
AFT requested a funding mechanism to rehab and rebuild schools; while supporting the work of the MSBA, “in many urban districts with buildings over 100 years old,” current MSBA requirements are not capable of delivering needs of students.

MTA further asked for support of the CHERISH Act, and, reflecting on the support for education made possible by the Fair Share amendment, said, “don’t run from progressive taxes…that should be an open conversation to have.” They propose a series of grant programs to apply for money to hire nurses, libraries, school counselors, and support the Literacy Launch initiative, while having many other ideas supported by the experts in the classrooms.

Speaking on behalf of MASS, Superintendent Portia Bonner of Northampton said, “we are in a financial crisis.” The proposed budget in Northampton cuts or decreases 24 positions. She also noted that Northampton, like many districts, loses substantial funding to charter schools. This was further supported by MASS Co-executive Director Mary Bourque, who said, “The costs of operating schools and school districts increased dramatically over the last few years as our nation’s inflation rate grew: special education, school transportation, building maintenance and contracted services, curriculum, technology costs, health insurance rates, and salaries/wages- have all stayed at crippling high levels as our school district revenue streams decline at a rapid pace.” The cap on inflation, Bourque and President Lefebvre emphasized, kept inflation at 4.5% the past two years, when in reality it was higher. The fall to 1.35%, without the missed percentages,  Bourque said, ” is having serious consequences in our schools; we need to fix this.” The panel specifically requested that 2.58% be added to the FY25 inflation rate.

President Lefebvre spoke further of the drop statewide of over 6000 students acknowledged as low income, caused at least in part by the recertification of MassHealth. Because of this decline, she said, “districts will no longer have the higher foundation budget to work with, or the higher state reimbursement that the foundation budget would have generated. This impacts not only urban districts like mine, Holyoke, but many suburban and rural communities as well. It is a trend that is likely to continue for at least two years.”

In discussion in response to questions from Senator Lewis, it was noted that, while some of this decline may be legitimate, there have been concerned raised nationally that recertification would illegitimately due to language differences, family mobility, homelessness, or other challenges. This may well be leaving children without health insurance as well as not counted as low income for the purposes of school funding.

Also emphasized in joint testimony was the need for full funding for the circuit breaker with attention to the escalating cost of special education both in and out of district; support for regional transportation and charter school reimbursement; attention to the needs of rural districts, including funding as recommended by the Rural Schools Commission report; minimum per pupil support; full support for homeless students; and increased attention to the needs surrounding migrant and refugee students.

In their testimony regarding both local aid and education funding, MMA emphasized several of the same points, with Athol Town Manager perhaps summarizing it best: “the fact is, it costs money to educate our kids.”