Lesser, Ashe talk economic challenges with School Committee

By Chris Maza

LONGMEADOW – Longmeadow’s state legislators expressed cautious optimism in the school district’s financial prospects and future state support.

State Sen. Eric Lesser and state Rep. Brian Ashe addressed the topic at length with the School Committee at its Jan. 14 meeting to discuss how recent developments at the State House might impact Longmeadow schools.

How to adequately fund the school district while staying below the levy limit has been an ongoing discussion for the School Committee, Superintendent M. Martin O’Shea and other town leaders. On this topic, Lesser and Ashe, both members of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, pointed to the recently passed Student Opportunities Act and efforts to amend Proposition 2 ½ as potential sources of relief.

Signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in November 2019, the state’s education spending bill known as the Student Opportunities Act would invest $1.5 billion in new funding for schools statewide annually over the next seven years. The legislation called for a reconfiguration of the formula used by the state to calculate the cost of education with updates to cost estimate parameters for healthcare, special education, low-income students and English language learners.

Ashe said these updates to the original formula, which was developed in 1993, were “long overdue” and necessary.

“know even when I was on the Select Board we talked about Chapter 70 and the inequities across the commonwealth,” he said. “We’ve been looking for a way to make it more equitable [and] make sure towns like Longmeadow – frankly all 351 cities and towns – have the proper funding they needed for their schools … I think where we’re at with the SOA is at least a great step in the right direction.”

Lesser admitted the Student Opportunity act was “not entirely geared toward the Longmeadow district,” but said Longmeadow Public Schools should see immediate benefits in reimbursements for healthcare and special education, specifically out-of-district placements.

“Those two elements of the formula when they were written in 1993 just did not adequately take into account inflation, cost increases and everything else,” he said.

Ashe also referred to retiree benefits as an area of improvement, but noted Longmeadow is “still behind on other things based on the formula.”

Lesser added the Joint Committee on Ways and Means received a consensus estimate of 2.8 percent for state revenue growth. He noted that the previous year, revenues exceeded estimates, which allowed for “a supplemental budget that plugged a lot of holes,” but at the very least, 2.8 percent growth would put the state on track to fund the first of the seven years.

“The way I like to describe the Student Opportunity Act is it is a promissory note and now we have the cash it year after year based off the revenues that come in, but the 2.8 percent was decently good news – very good news actually – from the consensus revenue hearing,” Lesser said.

Ashe added the Student Opportunity Act provides flexibility in the event of unforeseen complications or costs.

“There’s a mechanism in there that’s being studied throughout so if something comes up along the way,” he said. There’s opportunities to stop and say, ‘Maybe this needs correction; maybe this needs to go in a different direction,’ which I think is important. We’re not just stuck here for good or for bad for the next seven years.”

School Committee member Kevin Shea asked Lesser and Ashe for their opinions on the status of Proposition 2 ½ and if they could provide clarity on Longmeadow’s situation with regard to the tax levy ceiling. He said the tone from the Select Board is “terrifying” and asked if the situation should be interpreted as such.

“I’d like to say somewhere in between terrified and there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ashe said. “We’re going to hit the ceiling; the estimates are fiscal year 2024, so right around the corner … One of the possible scenarios is filing legislation to lift the cap. Not everybody would want that because it gives opportunity for the towns to tax more. It’s a concern; it’s a major concern … it’s not something myself and Sen. Lesser and the rest of the legislature are just going to come up with. This is going to be people going back to their constituents, going back to their school committees, select boards and councils and trying to come up with some creative solutions on what we can do.”

Ashe said towns much think outside the box at concepts such as regionalization and cost savings approaches.

“If we just kept it the way it is and kept moving forward and hit the ceiling, there would be cuts whether it’s teachers or police, fire, there would be cuts throughout the community,” he said.

Lesser said Longmeadow is not alone in its precarious position related to Proposition 2 ½ and required more long-term planning to develop a solution.

“While Longmeadow is probably facing this in potentially the most extreme and most immediate way, this is actually a pretty significant regional issue that all of our communities in Western Mass. are facing. I would just point out that the dynamics of how Prop. 2 ½ have worked are really structurally unfair to Western Mass.”

He explained that built-out communities with either flat or declining property values still face inflation and contractually obligated cost increases, regardless of how conservatively they budget. “The only way to get more revenue in a scenario like that is to raise rates. What has ended up happening as a result of this dynamic is that Springfield and Holyoke pay a higher property tax rate than Weston or Newton and that is really very unfair and should really shock people’s conscience.”

Lesser said around 80 percent of the municipalities with the highest tax rates in the state were west of Worcester. A group of Western Massachusetts legislators have been working on changing the structure of Proposition 2 ½, including an amendment filed by Lesser and state Sen. Jo Comerford to create a commission to study the issue and develop recommendations. The bill was also passed in the House of Representatives with Ashe’s support.

“This is a symptom of low economic growth rates,” Lesser said. “When property values are going up, you can actually cut the rate and collect more money. The bigger picture thing we need to be doing is getting our property values higher. You do that by bringing jobs and bringing investment.”

When addressing Longmeadow specifically, Lesser said, “We’re prepared to do what the town through some type of consensus-building wants us to do. If there’s a home rule option or legislation, we’re prepared to do that. There needs to be a mechanism for determining if that’s what the town wants to do and that’s really up to all of you and the Select Board and Town Meeting or whoever.”