WORCESTER – After nearly a year of entertaining the idea of suing the state to secure fair funding for city schools, the School Committee will get the chance Thursday to vote on whether to move forward with the threat.
Committee member Dante Comparetto has submitted a motion seeking to join a lawsuit proposed by the Brockton schools, whose officials are hoping to attract more plaintiffs to bring the case forward.
Like Brockton, Worcester does not receive sufficient funding from the state to meet the district’s increasing needs, local school officials say. Brockton’s suit would attempt to force the state to change its funding formula to more accurately reflect the true costs that urban districts incur in educating large and challenging student populations.
Committee members have occasionally mentioned the possibility of pursuing legal action against the state during the past year, including at their last meeting on Feb. 1. The issue also came up at the committee’s meeting with Worcester’s legislative delegation Friday.
"It was good to hear the delegation being concerned about" the district’s precarious budget situation, Mr. Comparetto said. "But then you also had (state Senate President Harriette) Chandler saying the money’s just not there" to do anything about it, he added. "I think it’s time for us to really be decisive."
Should the School Committee vote for his motion, Worcester would become the first district to officially join the planned lawsuit, said Brockton School Committee Vice Chairman Thomas J. Minichiello Jr. But he said Brockton has also heard from other urban districts across the state that are informally in favor of the move. At a meeting a week and a half ago at Stonehill College in Easton, for instance, several districts, including Worcester, were represented and indicated their support for it.
Proponents of the lawsuit hope it will achieve the same result as McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, an ultimately successful legal action from 1993 that similarly argued that the state was not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education to all students, regardless of their level of wealth or poverty.
Compared to Worcester, Brockton has had an even worse time in recent years because of its state funding shortage, "and this year isn’t looking much better," Mr. Minichiello said. He blamed, in particular, the state’s recent change to the way it identifies "economically disadvantaged" students, which includes abandoning the free and reduced-price lunch status that Brockton had relied on to count families.
"Every year, we are losing millions of dollars, which is totally handicapping us in our ability to provide the basics" for students, he said, adding that the state, in effect, has fostered a "systemic bias" that shortchanges urban school systems such as Brockton that enroll mostly children from low-income families. "They (the state) are forcing this lawsuit … they’re putting us in a position where there’s no other choice."
Mr. Minichiello said Brockton is "feeling out some options" with its suit, including searching for a legal firm or law school that might be willing to help pro bono or at a reduced rate. Having Worcester enter the fray, he said, could help that effort, as it would potentially open up a new region in which to look for legal assistance.
In general, he said, "in order to be successful (with the suit), it can’t just be Brockton by itself. If we have the cooperation (of a) cross-section of communities in a like position, it bolsters our position that there’s a flaw in the funding formula."
Mr. Comparetto, who joined the Worcester School Committee last month after being elected for the first time in November, said he’s also hopeful the Legislature could still tackle the funding problem on its own. Last week, for instance, the Joint Committee on Education favorably voted out a bill from state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz that would establish a schedule to begin implementing the state-appointed Foundation Budget Review Commission’s 2015 recommendations to update the school funding formula.
That’s a promising development, Mr. Comparetto said, "but I still think it’s important to keep the pressure on the state. One way to get that message out loud and clear is to make a decision to join Brockton."