^ Boston Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang : will he — can he ? address the budget mess ?
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As Boston voters prepare to choose the next City Council, there’s been minimal discussion of the City Budget; and practically none at all of its largest component, Boston’s School Department. We should not be surprised. Schools issues divide, dice, and slice any candidate bold enough to talk of them.
Case in point : the issue of whether or not to lift the state’s numbers limitation of charter schools. Only one at-large Council candidate, Michael Flaherty, has put himself publicly in favor, despite the immense popularity, among the city’s communities of color, of increasing charter school numbers. As for the District races, Andrea Campbell of District 4 has been bombed by the merest suggestion that she might not be rigidly opposed to increasing the number of charter seats.
I have often editorialized about charter schools, and innovation schools generally; right now I’ll leave the issue aside with the above paragraph offered only as an example of how school issues do not get discussed by those who seek to represent Boston voters. I predict the same will be true of the FY 2017 BPS Budget, a first draft of which will be presented fairly soon.
What can we say about the likely FY 2017 appropriation ? One, it will surely fall short of what public school advocates want. Mayor Walsh, testifying in favor of his charter schools cap lift bill — different from the Governor;s — stated that the shortfall amounts to $ 55,000,000. I doubt that his FY 2017 appropriation will supply it. That much would lift the schools budget by almost five percent — the FY 2016 increased only three percent over the prior year. Moreover, such increase as the mayor proposes will almost certainly go chiefly to staff salaries, which will increase by more than formerly on account of the agreement made with the Boston Teachers’ Union relative to a 40 minute longer school day.
Schools advocates decry the Budget’s inability to fund many basics : proper school lunches, bathroom stall doors, pencils and textbooks, heating system efficiency, transportation for students now relegated to the T as a cost saving measure. These advocates have a very sound point.
Less sound, however, is their blaming charter schools for the shortfall. If charter schools take 7,500 students who would otherwise populate the City’s standard schools, is that not a significant saving of personnel, staffing, building maintenance, and supplies ? You would think so. You would also ask why the State, pursuant to chapter 70 statutes, “compensates” school, districts for students who choose charters instead. In what way is chapter 760 money compensation ? If a district accommodates 15 percent less students, why doesn’t it require 15 percent less money, not compensation ?
The answer to this question uncovers the illogicality — the mess — of Boston’s Schools Budget. Compensation is required because school districts receive Federal funding dependent on numbers of students : the less students, the less funds. But why with less students should a school district NOT receive less funds ? Answer : even if 15 perce4nt of Boston’s students choose charter seats, there is no decrease in the number of school buildings kept open — even if for very few students — and maintained; no decrease in teacher staffing; and no decrease in the heating and maintenance that under-used schools require.
As it is now, about 300 Boston district teachers are kept on salary even though they have no classroom assignment. If we increase the number of charter seats, and close schools which become almost not used at all, yet more teachers will be paid for doing no work. They are maintained because the Teachers Union contract requires it. As for schools under utilized, when Superintendent McDonough attempted last year to close five such schools, all hell broke loose, and he was able to close only two. Imagine the outcry if charter school seats increase and maybe seven additional schools ought be closed !
Meanwhile, the City continues to tolerate one of the state’s most under-performing technical high schools, Madison Park — now on its fourth principal in four years.Madison park badly needs facility upgrades, new equipment, an entirely new curriculum and, probably, new teaching staff capable of working the new, more technological curriculum. At the very least, the new principal should be able to hire his own staff and to let staff go if they cannot perform. I will not hold my breath to see it happen.
Given the Madison park situation, and the number of unsatisfactory schools within Boston’s communities of color, is it any wonder that parents living in these zip codes demand more charter school seats ? (There are now 37,000 students ob charter schools waiting lists, the majority of them in Boston.) These parents are fed up with school budgets that do not address equipment and curriculum, staffing and transportation. They are justly offended by elected officials who will not speak up for fear of angering the Teachers’ Union and its parent council allies. They are unwilling to see their children forced to accept schools that cannot get them where they want to go despite a schools budget allotment approaching a record $ 1,200,000,000, including “compensation” that makes no sense at all but which is paid for by taxpayers who would be flummoxed to know the real deal of it.
Finally, note how many organizations the City needs whose mission is to get school graduates to actual jobs — bridge educators like College Bound, Bottom Line, Year Up, The Base, Paraclete, and more. These organizations all do heroic work; I know them up[ close and applaud what they do. Yet for all their prodigy, the year or more that young people spend attending their courses should not have to be. It’s a year or more that graduates could be earning a living, employed — not trying to get themselves the employment skills that taxpayers pay the schools to give them.
I doubt that the FY 2017 Budget will occasion anything different. The elected officials will run as far away from it as they can — or will echo the Teachers’ Union’s cry for more, more, more funds that could easily be allotted were they not already earmarked to items unnecessary or actual hindrance. Some day the parents of Boston school children, abandoned by their elected people, are going to insist upon an actual accounting. Is the new Superintendent, Tommy Chang, prepared for such upheaval ? He’d better be.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere