By GAIL LOWE
WAKEFIELD — Every day that school is in session, METCO students are bused in from Boston’s neighborhoods but, with a $930,000 cut to the statewide METCO budget looming, the program is now in peril.
METCO, formally known as the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, allows students in 37 Boston area and Springfield communities to attend public schools in communities that have agreed to participate in the program. In Wakefield, 51 students were enrolled as of Oct. 1, 2013.
METCO’s mission is to increase diversity in communities. According to program advocates, the majority of METCO students go to college and stand a better chance of succeeding in life.
Locally, the February decrease in the program’s funding was $14,499, Wakefield’s METCO program director Joel Villegas said at last Tuesday’s school board meeting.
Superintendent of School Dr. Stephen K. Zrike said he was “incredibly disappointed” by the METCO cuts that all communities in the state have suffered this year.
“We have had to cut extracurricular transportation and additional tutoring supports as part of the governor’s cuts,” said Zrike. “This fiscal reality constrains the quality of a program that we are trying to grow in Wakefield. The principles and ideals of METCO have been inextricably linked with the values of diversity that we promise as a school district. For 45 years, METCO students have been an integral part of our school community and we are hopeful that these cuts are not a sign of waning support from Beacon Hill.”
State Rep. Paul Brodeur (D-Melrose) shares Zrike’s sentiments.
“METCO is an important program and it is to Wakefield’s credit that the School Department participates,” he said. “I was disappointed to see the Governor’s 9C cuts and I’m hoping we can restore proper funding in next year’s budget.” So-called 9C cuts are those governors can make without approval of the Legislature.
Recently, Gov. Charlie Baker and former Gov. Deval Patrick made cuts to balance the state budget, bringing the allocation for METCO to $17.9 million, down from $19.1 million.
Aleisa Gittens-Carle, president of the association of METCO directors, last Tuesday decried the emergency cuts.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the original Fiscal Year 2015 grant allocation for Wakefield was $263,040, while the transportation allotment was $80,408. The adjusted grant allocation is now $244,126.
The program’s advisory committee has called for $5,000 per student, along with transportation costs.
“The news was pretty devastating but Wakefield is in better shape than other districts,” Villegas said.
He added that he has to “beg” state officials every March for money to run the program.
Villegas said there would be a lobby at the State House scheduled for 9 a.m. on Thursday, March 19.
Gov. Baker inherited a $768 million budget gap that he moved to close in February with a mix of unilateral cuts, spending reductions approved by the Legislature and other measures. The proposal cleared the Senate on a voice vote and passed the House by a 153-1 vote.
Baker plans to file his version of the FY’16 budget Wednesday, March 4. During a news conference, he said the METCO program would get his full attention.
Program supporters say they want the money restored and are asking for $21.5 million in FY’16, starting this coming July.
Advocates say Chapter 70 funding, commonly known as local school aid, has increased 70 percent between fiscal years 1999 and 2015, while METCO funding has increased just 44 percent.
While on the subject of METCO, school board member Gregory Liakos said that the history of busing as it applies to segregation in the Boston school district during the Civil Rights struggles during the 1970s might be a good idea to incorporate into curriculum.
In order to qualify for the program, a student must be a resident of Boston or Springfield and be non-white. Eligibility does not take into account a student’s record (including academics and behavior), English language proficiency, socioeconomic status, attendance record or immigration status.
Nearby communities that also participate are Melrose, Lynnfield and Reading.
A “nature’s classroom” field trip for approximately 160 grade 6 students to Freedom, N.H. and scheduled for Sept. 28 through Oct. 2 was approved last Tuesday night by the school board. Cost for each student will be $380. Expenses include transportation, meals and accommodations.
Following approval, grade 5 students will now learn about the trip. Faculty members overseeing the program are Kerry Sullivan and Amy Sweeney.
Students not participating will attend Camp Galvin at the middle school.
The school board approved a gift of $350 from neighbors and friends in memory of Deb Flynn, a school employee who passed away unexpectedly. Flynn was an aide in the School to Work program at Wakefield Memorial High School. The gift will pay for a pizza party at the Prince House of Pizza, certificates from Lakeshore Learning and miscellaneous supplies.