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Mayor: Schools swallow city’s budget

LYNN — Before the School Committee’s approval of a $142.9 million FY18 budget Wednesday night, Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy compared the continued increase in required net school spending to a beast that’s chewing up all of the money from the other city departments.

Kevin McHugh, school business administrator, said the FY18 required net school spending is $205 million and the Commonwealth’s school finance statute, Chapter 70, or state aid to the city is about $157 million, which is what the state provides to the city to cover their share of the $205 million.

Peter Caron, the city’s chief financial officer, said the city is responsible for coming up with the revenue to cover the balance, which is about $48 million.

Caron said $142.9 million, the budget approved by the school committee, is what the City Council has appropriated to the school department, and was based on an original net school spending of about $200.9 million. State aid had been about $152 million after Gov. Charlie Baker’s initial state budget.

Chapter 70 of the general laws, establishes an annual net school spending requirement for each Massachusetts school district. Failure to comply with this requirement may result in non-approval of a municipality’s tax rate, enforcement action by the Attorney General, or loss of state aid, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Kennedy, chairwoman of the School Committee, said the rule of thumb in Massachusetts is that the school population typically accounts for 10 to 12 percent of the city’s population.

She said Lynn has added 2,600 kids into its school system since FY10, and with each student that comes in, there’s a corresponding increase in the city’s net school spending requirement. She said there are about 16,000 kids in the schools, which accounts for almost 20 percent of the city’s population of about 90,000.

In other words, Kennedy said the city’s schools have far outpaced the growth of other communities, and the city is not able to keep pace with net school spending. She said the city’s spending requirement, or appropriation, to the schools has increased from $107 million in FY10 to about $143 million this year, about a 5 percent increase each year.

“You end up having to take and take and take from other departments to feed the school department budget and that’s what we’re facing right now,” Kennedy said. “We’re trying to keep people employed. We had to disband the police academy — that wasn’t for lack of funding from the schools. That was because (we) needed to put those officers on streets in cars patrolling because we didn’t have money to hire extra police because any increases in the police budget had to be delayed or stalled because that money had to come over to the schools.”

Kennedy said that’s the issue in a nutshell — no other community that she’s aware of has had such an increase in their school population in such a short period of time, which creates a vacuum that has to be filled with money.

Caron said the state legislature felt that the governor did not provide enough money for education, which led to the city  receiving an additional $4.2 million in Chapter 70 funds, which has not yet been applied to the school budget — the City Council has to vote to appropriate the funds to the school department. The next City Council meeting is Sept. 5.

He said the city has struggled to meet its net school spending requirement over the past five years. In FY16, Caron said the city was short by about $800,000, and was penalized. He said the struggle dates back to FY13, when officials were erroneously counting teacher retiree health insurance as an allowable cost toward net school spending, and have been playing catch up since then.

“I understand the frustration of the people at the table who feel like they’re not getting their fair share,” Kennedy said, referring to the school committee. “But you can imagine what all of the other departments feel when I’m saying don’t even bother trying to give me a level-funded budget — you have to give me something that has cuts in it because that money has to come over to here.

“I picture like a beast that’s chewing up all of the money, which it figuratively is compared to all of the other departments,” Kennedy said. “I guess, even though you always want more and I know every school system can always do more with more resources — it’s a given, but this department is in pretty damn good shape compared to the rest of the other departments in the city.”

Jared Nicholson, school committee member, said he understands the havoc the net school spending formula can create for the city’s budget, but that it was important to recognize that the school department is not asking for more than its fair share.

“We benefit from the fact that we receive a large portion of our budget from the state and we’re talking about a minority of that money coming from the city that is a requirement to get those state funds,” Nicholson said. “I’d like for us obviously to be able to meet that and for all of the city departments to meet their needs, and I think hopefully that we continue to try to do that as a city.

“I’m not saying that you’re doing this, but I think in general as we’ve had these conversations over the last months and even years, we should be careful to not be pitting the city departments against one another because ultimately, having well-educated kids is going to help the police do their job and having safe neighborhoods is going to make kids better learners,” Nicholson said.  

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