BOSTON SCHOOL BUDGET, 2017 : UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

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^ the man on the right has a plan. The man on the left is taking notes.

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This week Boston school Superintendent Tommy Chang announced there would be a $ 50 million shortfall in the upcoming school year budget. The question that I have is, why ?

Chang’s announcement letter tells us his own “why,” and you can read his paragraphs by clicking the link below. Nothing in his letter, however, hints at any answer to my question. (Read Chang’s letter here : http://www.bostonpublicschools.org/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=4&ModuleInstanceID=14&ViewID=047E6BE3-6D87-4130-8424-D8E4E9ED6C2A&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=9343&PageID=1 )

I’ll get to the reason why I think this shortfall is occurring. Meanwhile, let’s look at some of what Chang actually wrote : “Although the city has increased the budget appropriation for schools by $13.5 million for this year, salary and benefit increases for the School Department are running to $21 million, on top of unforeseen expenses and “investments in core operations, past commitments, and strategic priorities…While the city has continued to invest in the education of our youth, rising expenses are outpacing current revenue sources.

“The projected funding increase will not cover the full cost of our programs and services…especially given our commitment to important investments such as, early childhood education, the hiring of high-quality, diverse teachers and extended learning time.”

Clearly, Chang does not like the upward pressure put upon the school budget by salary and benefit raises. As he writes, these stand directly in opposition to every other item in the budget, some of which are spelled out in the second quoted excerpt.

The contrast that Chang asserts is not new. It was there in John McDonough’s two budgets. It is a fact. School employees form by far the largest dollar item in the city’s schools budget, and it always increases, no matter what. For school employees represented by a union — as are all except management positions — these increases arise from negotiated contracts, and “a deal is a deal is a deal.”

Yet why should unionized school employees’ contracts necessarily cause a $ 50 million budget shortfall ? School employees do not set the school budget, nor, actually, does Superintendent Chang. The Mayor decides the number. Could the Mayor appropriate an additional $ 50 million to his school budget ? Of course he could. Take a look at the City’s FY 2015 budget here : http://www.cityofboston.gov/images_documents/04%20Revenue%20Estimates%20and%20Analysis_tcm3-44075.pdf

We see at this web page that in FY 2015 Boston’s revenue totaled $ 2,73 billion, an increase of $ 121.4 million over previous year. Given the Boston building boom, I doubt that FY 2016’s figures look any worse — probably quite a bit better. The same can almost certainly be said for FY 2017. Nor, in this context, does the billion dollars in tax breaks given to GE, spread over many years, loom very large. So why the $ 50 million school budget shortfall ?

Nothing in writing suggests the answer that occurs to me, but I think it’s quite plain : Mayor Walsh is preparing his response to two major schools events : first, the next teacher’s union contract; and second, his opposition to the Governor’s charter school cap lift.

Mayor Walsh opposes Governor Baker’s charter cap lift bill because — so says Walsh — it comes too soon. Walsh prefers charter cap lift implemented at a later date. An odd request, that. Why so ?

The answer, I think, is that he first wants to negotiate a less inexorable salary and benefits package with the teachers and custodians. To get the public on his side in that negotiation, he is, I think, using his school budget authority to finger teacher and custodian salaries as the bad-guy obstacle to funding everything else that schools must offer.

Walsh also has a second weapon that he is bringing to bear on union employee salaries : his ten year capital budget plan to consolidate 126 smallish schools into 90 larger 0nes. I think that he envisions these 90 larger schools having far fewer custodial employees than today’s 126 smallish schools, and maybe fewer teachers or teacher aides. (Consolidation of school buildings also forecasts far less money spent on energy costs. That saving is a good thing.)

Walsh needs to win this fight, which looks to be intense — last night 300 parents showed up to an “emergency meeting” at School Department headquarters — before he can support charter cap lift, an equally contentious battle, without risking his 2017 re-election.

Complete reorganization of Boston’s schools system is certainly Walsh’s goals, as it is the goal of the city’s employers and of many of the city’s school-kid parents. This cannot possibly be accomplished all at once. You can only reform an entrenched vested interest by chipping away at it, a little at a time. Walsh’s $ 50 million FY 2017 schools short-sheet looks like the first chip in his long term plan.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere