BOSTON - Massachusetts schools now know more about what they'll need to plan for in the fall, with the release of new reopening guidance from the Baker administration on Thursday.
But schools, suddenly operating in a recession, will have to wait even longer into the summer before they can get a sense of their state aid allocations for a fiscal year that gets underway next week.
"We're not going to know the answer to that one for probably 30 days or so," Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday when asked if schools should expect state aid increases in the coming fiscal year. "I wish we had the answer today, but we don't."
The COVID-19 pandemic upended both the 2019-2020 school year and the state budget cycle, forcing a transition to remote learning in the spring and leading lawmakers to delay their budget development cycle in hopes of getting a better handle on the amount of damage the economic downturn has inflicted on revenue collections, and the amount of one-time aid that might be coming from the federal government.
State officials envisioned this coming fiscal year, fiscal 2021, as the first in a seven-year implementation of a 2019 school funding reform law that will ultimately deliver $1.5 billion in new money to K-12 schools. In keeping with the new law, Baker proposed a $303.5 million increase in Chapter 70 aid to local schools in the $44.6 billion budget proposal he offered in January, raising the Chapter 70 account to $5.48 billion.
Without any post-pandemic fiscal 2021 budgets on the table, the Legislaturer on Thursday afternoon sent a $5.25 billion temporary budget to Gov. Baker to keep state government running through July. Experts say revenues could fall billions of dollars below initial fiscal 2021 estimates, and the Baker administration earlier this week advised cities and towns to expect their local aid payments for the beginning of fiscal 2021 to match fiscal 2020 levels.
Baker said Thursday there are "two major elements" to answering questions about fiscal 2021 local aid levels. Cities and towns are bracing for the range of possibilities - cuts, level funding, or increases.
Like other states and the federal government, Massachusetts moved its income tax-filing deadline from April to July as the pandemic's impacts started to hit. April is normally the biggest month for tax collections, and Baker said one element is "what are the April tax payments going to look like when they get made on July 15."
"The second is the current dialogue that's going on in Washington with respect to a state and municipal support package going on associated with COVID, and some updated guidance on how states and municipalities can spend the very significant resources that have already been made available to states and cities and towns by the feds," Baker said.
Budget writers are having "very positive dialogue" on those two topics, Baker said, "but they have all told us that this is an issue that they're going to deal with in the second half of July, and we're not going to have an answer to that until then."
Baker budget chief Michael Heffernan has said there could be more than one interim budget.
Baker spoke after joining state education officials to detail his administration's K-12 school reopening guidance, which prioritizes an in-person return to classrooms this fall but also requires school districts to develop plans for remote learning and hybrid models.
Baker also announced plans to make available $202 million from a federal coronavirus relief fund to assist schools with reopening costs, and to commit another $25 million in federal funds for a grant program for technology purchases that support remote learning.
A late July timeline for budget deliberations, should that in fact play out, would bring that major piece of legislation up against the end of formal lawmaking sessions for the term. Under joint House-Senate rules, July 31 is the last day for formal sessions.
Though the two branches will continue to meet after that point, it will be in informal sessions, where debate and recorded roll call votes are not allowed and any one lawmaker's objection can stop a bill from advancing.
Senate President Karen Spilka on Thursday didn't rule out the possibility of arranging to hold a formal session past July 31 for budget debate, but also noted the five weeks that remain for legislative business before that date. The weeks leading up to July 31 are typically among the Legislature's busiest.
"I haven't foreclosed that as a possibility, but five weeks, we can get a lot done and focus on the budget and transportation and looking at economic development," Spilka told the News Service. "That's a lot of time in legislative weeks, as you know. We'll have to see, and I'll certainly discuss the schedule with my colleagues in the Senate and the speaker."