SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 22, 2012

State rep candidates spar over local aid claims

BY ETHAN FORMAN STAFF WRITER
The Salem News

---- — DANVERS — Selectman Dan Bennett is questioning how much credit state Rep. Ted Speliotis can take for a significant jump in state aid to Danvers this year.

“I think it’s how it’s presented that people may question,” said Bennett, a Republican who is challenging Speliotis for the second time in two years, seeking the 13th Essex District seat that Speliotis has held since 1997. It is the only state representative race on the North Shore.

Bennett cites Speliotis campaign literature that says, “I fought for and won a 26 percent increase in local aid for Danvers during the worst economic downturn of our lifetime.”

Bennett accuses Speliotis of exaggerating his role. What should Speliotis have said?

“‘Danvers received a 26 percent increase in local aid, which is a great thing for our town.’ That’s how I would have phrased it,” Bennett said.

Speliotis isn’t buying it.

“I stand by my statement,” he said. “Danvers hit the jackpot this year.”

Speliotis said that in 2006 he and other lawmakers fought for and voted to change local aid formulas to help cities and towns that were not receiving a fair share of education aid under Chapter 70. At the time, wealthier towns like Topsfield (which used to be in the 13th Essex District) were receiving 10 percent of their school budget from the state, while low-income cities like Lawrence were receiving 100 percent.

The change in the formula upped the percentage of state aid for education to Topsfield to 17 percent.

“What happened in Danvers (this year) happened in Topsfield in 2007,” Speliotis said.

In this fiscal year’s state budget, Danvers got about $1.8 million more in state aid, plus money to pay for school transportation for homeless students placed in Danvers motels.

Bennett said Danvers was really a beneficiary of education aid formulas that were instituted with education reform in 1993 and have been tweaked over time. Speliotis said that lawmakers adjust aid formulas approximately every 10 years.

Of special significance, Speliotis said, was a $100,000 increase in state aid for the cost of transporting homeless students living in motels.

Speliotis said his efforts created a new line item in the state budget of $11.3 million for homeless student transportation, after he wrote a letter to State Auditor Suzanne Bump, who ruled such costs are indeed an “unfunded mandate,” as Speliotis had argued, and should be paid for by the state. Bump also ruled that education of some homeless students was also part of that unfunded mandate.

“I am the only one to ask the state auditor if it was an unfunded mandate,” said Speliotis, who said he worked hard to build a coalition with other communities and with fellow lawmakers who were also seeing increases in the number of homeless families living in motels in their communities. They argued that the state should pick up the costs for homeless student transportation, and then worked the legislative process to get the money in the state budget.

The issue of how much aid the state should provide Danvers, which has been dealing with an influx of families being sheltered in its budget motels, has been a sore point between some members of the Board of Selectmen and Speliotis for the past three years.

“What it comes down to is what did he bring back to Danvers besides $100,000 in homeless transportation?” Bennett said. “We did have an increase in local aid, but the $1.6 million was based on Danvers spending a certain amount on the schools, and the formula kicked in.”

“We created those formulas,” Speliotis said, “and I’m the only one in the state to ask for the mandate.”

Speliotis also argues that there’s more to it than that. He said Bump’s ruling was critical to Danvers receiving more under the state education aid formula because it covered some costs related to the education of homeless students. That meant the income level of the homeless families living in the motels counted toward the education aid formula, so the town fell into a different income category, triggering the increase.

This is the first controversy to arise in the state representative race.

A late write-in campaign during the state primary put Bennett’s name on the ballot. A selectman since 2007, Bennett is also a trustee at Essex Agricultural and Technical High School and works as a self-employed real estate broker.

Speliotis is one of the longest-serving legislators on Beacon Hill, having also served a stint in the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1986. He is a former Danvers town moderator.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.