This spring has seen many Massachusetts public school officials, even those in some of the state's wealthier communities, express concern that multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls will drive teachers away and decimate educational programs that took years to build.

It is a painful situation all too familiar to Research Prof. Irwin Blumer (LSOE), a former superintendent in the Newton, Concord and Concord-Carlisle school systems, and he targets an equally familiar adversary: Proposition 2 1/2, the state law that limits annual property tax hikes in cities and towns.

While the law's supporters claim it helps promote fiscal discipline, Blumer - who was in his first superintendent job when the measure passed in 1980 - says Proposition 2 1/2 hamstrings school systems in lean economic times.

"What we're going through right now is cyclical and is one of the real problems of Proposition 2 1/2," said Blumer, who has offered remarks on the subject to the Boston Globe, among other media outlets. "This seems to be the cycle: You lose, and then you begin to put back what should be in place, and then the bottom drops out again.

"In years past, prior to Proposition 2 1/2, school committees had autonomy over their budgets and they could get the funds they needed. Now what you're seeing is school systems coming up with two budgets: the one they need and the one they're going to get if an override does not pass."

The depth of the cuts will remain unclear until budgets for next year are finalized, but school officials warn of stark consequences if communities do not approve Proposition 2 1/2 overrides. Even if the overrides pass, according to the Globe, many school districts may have to cut positions. State lawmakers predict local aid could be slashed by 10 percent next year, and with costs for special education, health insurance and salaries increasing rapidly, school districts say they can barely make ends meet, let alone withstand cuts.

Blumer says that the 1993 Education Reform Act has forced superintendents to cope with complex circumstances brought about by standards-based reform - and the accountability that goes with it - increasing enrollment and heightened special education costs.

"Making cuts is going to be even more complicated than 15 or 20 years ago," he said.

Blumer says teacher layoffs will cause the state's public schools, which endured major fiscal woes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to regress after a decade of progress.

"What many people don't realize is that we're still dealing with the impact of the cuts we had to make in the 1980s," said Blumer. He traces the current shortage of principals and education administrators in part to the layoffs two decades ago of many young teachers who subsequently chose other professions.

"They would be today's principals, but they are no longer in education," said Blumer.

"Proposition 2 1/2 has been very demoralizing for teachers, and the legislature needs to have the courage to do something about it," he said.

-Stephen Gawlik


Return to April 11 menu

Return to Chronicle home page