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Facing 'Dire' Budget Deficit, Brockton Schools Will Lay Off Nearly 200 Teachers03:32Download

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Layoffs are on the horizon for 189 teachers in Brockton.

The district says the move is a last resort seen as the only way it can attempt to close a $16 million budget gap that the city says is partially caused by changes to the way the state counts low-income students.

New Method Misses Some Students 

Two years ago, 81 percent of students in the Brockton School District were considered "low income," and like all districts, Brockton received extra money to educate them.

Today, the number of counted low-income students hovers around 55 percent. What accounts for a 26-point drop in just two years?

Brockton Public Schools Chief Budget Officer Aldo Petronio says part of the district's financial woes is a change in the way the state counts low-income students.

"They now look at our student population — they receive it electronically — they match that against four state lists that they have," Petronio said.

For Massachusetts to count a student as low income, the student must be registered for Medicaid, foster care or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This is a shift from how low-income students used to be counted, when all that was needed was proof of income to be eligible for free or reduced lunch. Districts would use this information to determine how many low-income students they had.

Now students must be receiving some sort of state benefits to qualify. And for places like Brockton, which has a significant immigrant population, students that may be living in poverty are not necessarily receiving any state benefits. Petronio says many Brockton students are newcomers to the country.

"They're not on any state assistance program," he explained. "They don't qualify. It takes upwards of five years in this country before you can qualify, along with the fact that some of them are just afraid to get on any state assistance because there's a good chance they're not here legally."

This leaves a huge hole in Brockton's budget, because according to Petronio, not all of its low-income students are being counted.

"I've never been in a situation where it is this dire."

Aldo Petronio, Brockton Public Schools chief budget officer

The district was also hit hard after losing several students to the city's first charter school -- and despite a state law, Petronio says Brockton has not been fully reimbursed for those losses.

The district says this is the largest deficit it has ever seen. As a result, Petronio says 189 teachers will receive pink slips this month. Sixty-four positions will be transferred to other roles.

"I've never been in a situation where it is this dire," Petronio said. "I've been in situations where we've had to give out pink slips or writ notices, but [we were] feeling confident there was money coming our way."

Revisiting The Formula 

State education officials say there are some other reasons why fewer low-income students are being counted under this new model. Deputy Education Commissioner Jeff Wulfson says sometimes the issues are simple, like names are spelled wrong. Districts and state agencies are now going through the process of double checking names against databases.

Wulfson is also asking that schools encourage students who do qualify for services like food stamps to apply.

"And then we are revisiting our formula itself and looking at ways we can tweak the formula and see if we can pick up some of the missing kids and make sure that nobody's impacted going forward," he said.

Wulfson notes that all schools have been what's called "held harmless" — which means up until now, they've been reimbursed for their losses.

Wulfson also says the state increased the amount of money districts get for each economically disadvantaged student under the new matching system, by about 20 percent.

Brockton, however, says, the district still finds itself coming up short for the upcoming year.

Petronio says he's hoping more money will become available by the end of the legislative session.

"I'm always optimistic that the state Legislature tries to help out communities like Brockton by making the formula work for us," he said.

But Petronio says he's realistic it won't be enough to fill a $16 million gap.

"I'm hoping to receive some [funds], but I'm not expecting millions of dollars. I'm expecting hundreds of thousands, hopefully, if even that right now."

This segment aired on May 4, 2017.

Tonya Mosley Twitter Senior Reporter
Tonya Mosley was the senior reporter for WBUR's Edify.

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