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On A Supplemental Budget Informed By Recent School Shootings, Officials Are Divided

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker at an event at the John D. O'Bryant School in 2017 (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Gov. Charlie Baker at an event at the John D. O'Bryant School in 2017 (Max Larkin/WBUR)
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As a broader fight over education funding heats up on Beacon Hill, some — including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh — have expressed qualms about Gov. Charlie Baker's plan to inject millions of dollars into school safety.

The state took in approximately $1 billion in surplus tax revenue in the last fiscal year. Last week, Baker’s office put forward a $150 million supplemental budget, designed to direct some of that additional money to education in what Baker has called a "targeted" way.

That budget’s biggest commitment is $72 million for school safety -- a decision that Baker said is informed by the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

The spending includes $40 million to hire school counselors, social workers and psychiatrists. Baker said this was "the No. 1 request of the superintendents that we discuss this with" during months of talks.

Tom Scott, executive director of Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS), was present for those discussions, and he approves of the budget that resulted.

"Superintendents, for the past several years, have spent a great deal of time talking about concerns about mental health," Scott said. "To have additional resources that we'd be able to focus around that area — we're very supportive."

Massachusetts has not experienced a mass shooting on school premises since the 1992 killings at Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington. But Scott says the threat is on the minds of many state superintendents — along with the need for more psychiatric staff working in schools.

According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the number of counselors working in Massachusetts schools has increased modestly -- by 7 percent -- in what could be called the age of school shootings, from 2004 to 2015.

At the end of that period in 2015, Massachusetts public schools employed one counselor for every 423 of their students.

That ratio is slightly more balanced than the national average, but still it's nearly twice as high as what ASCA recommends -- 250 students per counselor. (Only New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming -- three of the nation’s 10 most sparsely populated states — are meeting that standard.)

This use of a fiscal windfall is "a good start," according to Sophie Hansen, political director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

"Social workers’ role is to prioritize the students' well-being and safety," Hansen said. "And while this is something that is slated to be one year, our hope would be that [more] schools can see the value of a social worker -- and think creatively about how they can prioritize mental health going forward."

And MASS' Scott cited the "need for some statewide consistency" in all aspects of school safety, both in access to counselors and in security infrastructure improvements like cameras, single-access doors and better locks.

That consistency would be achieved by offering $20 million in matching grants for schools that want to update that kind of infrastructure, and by tweaking the foundation budget formula, which calculates the funding needs of every school district in the state.

But many lawmakers and activists have argued that due to the rising costs of health care and special education, that formula is already well out of touch with the needs of the state's public schools. Starting Monday, a bill to update the foundation budget is being discussed in conference committee; it could cost as much as $2 billion over the course of its implementation.

Few in the education community dispute the need for more counselors and social workers. But some say the preexisting needs should have taken precedent.

That includes Boston's Walsh, Baker's sometime political ally.

Walsh said he was "disappointed by the continued under-funding of existing education obligations ... despite having adequate resources to do so." He singled out another gap — the so-called "charter-school reimbursement," which has been underfunded for several years.

The under-funding of that reimbursement — designed to help districts temporarily replace funding lost to charter schools — is expected to cost Boston $25 million in the next fiscal year.

According to a WBUR poll last month, a majority of Massachusetts voters believe that schools receive too little funding in general, and they would support higher taxes to significantly increase funding for local schools.

Meanwhile, Baker and the Legislature have enacted a popular measure to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed a risk to themselves or others. The state already has the nation's lowest rate of gun violence per capita, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are critics on both sides of the measure, with fiscal conservatives warning that the added spending is out of control and progressive voices saying the money should be spent on infrastructure improvements, as opposed to "cops and surveillance." (In addition to paying for cameras in schools, Baker's supplemental budget would add $4 million to train police officers who work in schools.)

It's a case study in education's competing constituencies. The state may run a one-year surplus, but there's no agreement about the urgent, structural needs that should be met first.

Scott of MASS doesn't necessarily see a conflict between the two camps.

He admitted that the outdated foundation budget and the charter-school reimbursement are top priorities for school leaders. But he said he greets this spending as an intermediate success in a larger campaign.

"Keep in mind that part of the inadequacy of [existing] budgets is the lack of support services for children," Scott said.

Baker himself raised a note of alarm about the sustainability of the proposed spending. He attributed the revenue surplus, in part, to the federal tax cut bill passed late last year.

And he warned that we should remember that "tax revenue is a little bit bumpy." In other words, the state shouldn't count on similar windfalls in the near future.

It remains to be seen whether more ambitious changes to the way schools are funded will make it out of conference by the end of this legislative session on July 31.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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