BOSTON (State House News Service) – Former Gov. Deval Patrick may have illegally cut regional school transportation funding last November to help plug a budget gap, according to a group of lawmakers who plan to ask the new attorney general for her legal opinion.
Patrick in November cut $18.7 million for regional school transportation reimbursements as part of $252 million in emergency spending reductions.
While Patrick estimated an overall $329 million budget problem, Gov. Charlie Baker has since estimated a remaining budget gap of $765 million, and is coming up with a plan to fix it.
Some lawmakers argue Patrick’s cuts to regional school transportation might be illegal because a 2010 state law prohibits any cuts to transportation for regional schools if there is not a corresponding reduction in local aid to schools. Patrick did not cut local aid.
The 2010 law was put into place to protect regional schools, according to Sen. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer), one of the lawmakers asking for Attorney General Maura Healey to weigh in.
Regional schools are scrambling to find places to cut budgets in the middle of the school year, according to Steve Hemman, executive director of Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools.
The fiscal 2015 budget allocated $4.4 billion in Chapter 70 local aid payments to school districts. The budget also included $70.2 million to reimburse regional school districts for transportations costs.
Hemman said the 2010 “achievement gap” law was designed to make sure that regional transportation could not be cut more than Chapter 70 school funding. The Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools asked lawmakers to send a letter to Healey looking for her legal opinion.
Gobi, Rep. Kimberly Ferguson (R-Holden), Rep. Bradford Hill (R-Ipswich), and Rep. James Kelcourse (R-Amesbury) are sending a letter to Healey on Friday. Depending on what she says, the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools is contemplating a lawsuit against the state, Hemme said.
“If we have to, we are prepared,” to sue, Hemman said.
“We are trying to see one step at a time. If the attorney general says (the law) is applicable, we are going to look at what to do,” he added.
Gobi said it is hard for school districts to find the money after they have already signed contracts with bus companies.
Ferguson, a Republican from Holden, said regional schools fought for increases, and now they are being reversed in the middle of the year. “They can’t budget like that,” she said.
Gobi said lawmakers have not yet spoken with the Baker administration about the school transportation cuts, but plan to once the administration “settles in.”
In 2007, after taking over for Gov. Mitt Romney, Patrick reversed emergency spending cuts made by his Republican predecessor.