Free lunches, PFAS filtration, and school construction in state budget

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North Attleborough High School
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The Massachusetts budget for fiscal year 2024 is now law, and North Attleborough is receiving funding for free school meals, chemical mitigation and infrastructure programs.

Signed into law by Gov. Maura Healey on Aug. 9, the $56.2 billion budget provides funding for state agencies, transportation, public education and infrastructure projects in cities and towns. It also funds new programs such as permanent free meals in all public schools, free telephone calls for prisoners, and MassReconnect, a free community college program for those 25 and older.

The budget was initially due on July 1 but was delayed due to internal disagreements between the House and Senate Democrats.

State Rep. Adam Scanlon (D-North Attleborough) said that among other things, the budget funds projects that mitigate polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the town’s water supply and increases state funding for public schools.

“This is a critical investment for the Hockomock region,” Scanlon said. “I am incredibly proud of the results and am thankful for working with leadership on this budget.”

State Sen. Paul Feeney (D-Foxboro) agreed with Scanlon.

“This budget provides historic levels of funding to bolster the Commonwealth’s most consequential sectors such as education, workforce development, regional transportation, climate and mental health,” Feeney said. “I am proud that many of my amendments have been adopted to support these district-related initiatives in the  Bristol and Norfolk District, as well.”

Free school meals in North Attleborough

The program that received the most praise from town officials is the implementation of universal free meals in public schools. In 2020, the Federal Government made lunches free to provide financial relief for parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the program ended in 2022, Massachusetts lawmakers opted to continue the policy for the next fiscal year 2023.

Lawmakers from both the House and Senate agreed on allocating $172 million to fund the new program, making Massachusetts the eighth state to make school meals permanently free. Of those funds, $70 million will come from revenue collected by the Fair Share Tax, a 4% tax on those making more than $1 million and approved by voters in 2022

Scanlon said he and his constituents support free school lunches, adding that the program will likely be funded for multiple years after its start in September.

“Like many things, everything costs money, and you have to make it (free lunches) a priority,” Scanlon said. “Ultimately, this will help give children the lift they deserve and achieve food and nutritional equity.”

The inclusion of free school meals also provides financial relief for parents. According to the food charity Boston Bread, parents would save an average of $1,000 annually.

Superintendent Dr. John Antouncci said one out of every four students at North Attleborough Public Schools lives in a home that makes less than the average household income. He said the program would be transformational for the district and all public schools in Massachusetts.

“It’s not a small gesture; it is a game changer,” Antonucci said. “Ensuring that students have access to school lunch — I mean, it should be fundamental. Kids can’t learn while they are hungry.”

Cleaner water and new infrastructure

The final draft of the budget included several amendments from Scanlon and Feeney that fund different projects in town.

The two secured $30,000 through the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs for the town’s PFAS mitigation efforts It will go towards different projects, such as constructing a filtration system at the McKeon Treatment Plant, which is still closed.

The chemicals in PFAS are man-made and used in the manufacturing of certain fire-fighting foams, moisture, and stain-resistant products, and other industrial processes.

In the fall of 2022, the town applied for a $5 million federal grant to fund the construction of a water filtration site at the facility.

Town Manager Michael Borg said the initial funding will help, but more must be done.

“We are persistently championing augmented funding in this crucial sector,” Borg said. “I believe that with more focused resources, potentially with any unallocated ARPA funding, we can better mitigate the challenges posed by PFAS.”

Scanlon agreed and has been working to build support for legislation filed by state Sen. Julian Cyr (D-Truro) that would cease the production of items that contain PFAS.

“There is always more work to be done,” Scanlon said. “I hope we can get that bill over the finish line.”

Scanlon and Feeney also acquired funding for several other projects, including $100,00 for the construction of a new playground at the Roosevelt Avenue School, $10,000 for the Downtown North Attleborough Collaborative, and $60,000 for Space2Thrive, Inc. to support the Volt Hockey Program and acquisition of adaptive Volt Hockey Wheelchairs and partnership with the Hockomock Area YMCA.

The two also touted a $39.4 million increase in funding for public schools under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 70.

North Attleborough Town Council President Justin Pare praised Scanlon and Feeney’s work during the budget process and said working alongside the legislators has helped the town achieve its current and future goals.

“The people of North Attleboro are well represented on Beacon Hill, and one measure of that is the amount of aid and state funds the town receives,” Pare said. “Our continued collaboration and partnership between our local town leaders and state leaders is paying dividends and helping the town to fund many of the great improvements in services and infrastructure we’ve seen over the last few years.”

Scanlon defends budget process

While many lawmakers and town officials have praised the budget, some transparency groups have criticized the process of how it was written.

In addition to being nearly two months late, negotiations on the budget were conducted in private between House and Senate leaders. Due to disagreements between the two chambers, the budget was delayed and the legislature passed two interim budgets in order to keep the government open for  July and August.

A consequence of delayed budgets is that new programs, such as MassReconnect, could face difficulties in their initial launch. Because of the lack of clarity, those in charge are unaware if there is enough time to begin implementation of the program.

Scanlon said that the delay was part of the process and that it takes time for differences to be reconciled. He added that legislators do get a say in how the budget is drafted, despite not being involved in leadership meetings.

“I often think of this as leadership voting with me,” Scanlon said. “I don’t think there’s anyone out there against making community college free or school lunches free. Ultimately, people agree.”