SCHOOL FUNDING AT AN IMPASSE

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^ a tax increase to pay the Boston Schools Budget ? 1st Suffolk & Middlesex candidate Joe Boncore at last night’s meet and greet

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Last night at a meet and greet, a candidate looking to become my District’s next State Senator stated that, if need be to fund Boston’s Public Schools, there should be a tax increase.

The speaker who spoke it is Joe Boncore, and he is the endorsed candidate of the Boston Teachers’ Union.

Boncore did not out and out call for a tax increase. But he did say that school funding might need one.

It’s no surprise to any of us that the Teachers’ Union and its candidate should put on the table a possible tax increase to close what even Mayor Walsh describes as a “shortfall” in the City’s $ 1.02 billion public school allocation. The Union dares not address the actual imbalances in that budget, so well reported yesterday by The Boston Globe’s Michael Levenson : : https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/03/24/budget-gap-filled-for-now-but-hard-decisions-remain/zwRHYRjYBl0zSyMmQtIrUN/story.html

In that story we read what I have known since the FY 2017 Schools Budget was first presented, at a January 2016 School Committee hearing : that ( 1 ) even though mayor Walsh awarded the School Department an  additional $ 13.5 million over last year, the allotment fell some $ 50 million short of covering all the year’s anticipated schools costs and ( 2 ) that about 85 percent of those costs go to salaries ($ 863.9 million), including some $ 13 million for 100 teachers who have no work to perform, for that pay, because, in many cases, no principal would hire them.

The vote to approve FY 2017’s Schools Budget was 5 yes, 2 no: http://www.bostonpublicschools.org/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=4&ModuleInstanceID=14&ViewID=047E6BE3-6D87-4130-8424-D8E4E9ED6C2A&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=9921&PageID=1

The Budget itself can be read here : https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzzLbJ_lC7U2MGdsRE0tZTdPVDVjOVBGSm1zWmRtTkpGdzJB/view?pref=2&pli=1

The new Budget actually decreases its allotment to salaries, from $ 870.7 million to the $ 863.9 figure. Every category of staff took a small cut. It wasn’t enough. In his Letter accompanying the Final; Budget, Superintendent Chang set forth many program reductions necessitated by not having the additional $ 50 million he says he needs : https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzzLbJ_lC7U2OWxGdnlkNVR0c0lGQ0loSzlOV0ZwNkpQc3I4/view?pref=2&pli=1

As the Globe’s Levenson notes, though several categories of budget item have been cut, teacher salaries have not been cut at all — salaries continue to0 rfi9se, and the $ 7 million saving in this year’s budget arises from retirements, not cutbacks.Nor has the Boston Public School day been extended, or school vacations consolidated, nor have under-utilized schools been consolidated — as the Mayor has on plan already.

A new Teacher Union contract is in negotiation right now, and it is likely that without a multi-year pay raise schedule agreed to, no contract will be signed. Given the huge pay awards given to the Police Detectives and Patrolmen, and the generous, if not excessive, award to the Firefighters, I cannot see how the Mayor will win agreement from the Teachers without including a similarly sized (25 to 27 percent) award to them.

Thus the tax increase that candidate Boncore advocated at last night’s meet and greet.

Of course said tax increase cannot stand. How can it ? Look at the facts :

( 1 ) Boston’s schools department maintains school accommodation for 91,000 students, but only about 57,000 students attend. Consolidation of facilities might save the Schools Budget about $ 75 million in energy cost reduction as well as maintenance staffing.

( 2 ) Boston employs teachers based on that 91,000 number. Boston’s teacher to student classroom ration is about 12 to 1, the lowest in the state. Most classrooms seek 15 to 18 students per teacher. In Boston, that figure would mean laying off as much as one-third of all teachers (and classroom aides), a saving of about $ 285 million.

A savings of maybe $ 335 million — even of half that — eliminates the $ 50 million “shortfall” and then some. And more can be done. Boston remains under a Federal Court order, unsatisfied for a decade, to diversify its teaching staff. The order seeks to have about 22 percent of teachers be people of color; currently, only about 12 percent of teachers fit that description. Buying out the contracts of older, white teachers who, via tenure, earn generous six figure salaries, and replacing them with younger, new hires — who would start at about $ 65,000 — would, after the buy-out year, might save the Schools another $ 75 million.

These are hard decisions to make, painful ones. Nor is Superintendent Chang in any kind of strong position to recommend them. His predecessor, John McDonough, as a lifelong Boston resident and long time School Department administrator,m was working toward such changes. Even he would have faced big push-back. Chang. has no such constituency to back him up. In any case, it appears that the real Schools superintendent is City Education Chief Rahn Dorsey, who is doggedly executing Mayor Walsh’s ten year Schools reconfiguration plan. That plan includes much of what I have recommended, and I note that the Mayor is decrying, in particular, the 100 teachers being paid though not employed.

Clearly the Mayor wants big Schools change. What he does NOT support is a tax increase. How could he, given the budget facts I have listed ? If you speak to Boston voters who do not have kids in the School system, or who pay up to $ 22,000 a year for school tuition elsewhere because they do not trust nor like the Schools Department’s assignment choices, and who know that about half the median $ 5,000 a year real estate tax  goes to Schools, you do not hear a whole lot of support for giving more tax money to a system that does  not work for them. It’s a situation quite like that facing the MBTA : if the voters do not trust you to use their tax money wisely and efficiently, they aren’t going to accord you more of it.

It would be nice if candidate Boncore would speak for the voters as a whole, and not for the interest group that has endorsed him. Boncore’s campaign has otherwise much to like; on many issues, he gets it. He has significant activist support in the core of my Senate District. He is likeable and amenable, mostly, to differing views. And yet…

I applaud the passion of the school parents who, out of desperation or urgency, support the Teacher Union position because it’s easier to do that than to fight it out. They deserve better than the “take it or leave it” the Boston Schools budget impasse presents them with. Still, if our legislators do not take a stand now, the “take it or leave it” budgeting will continue, and taxpayers will have yet more reason to feel that government does not represent them.

Has not the Trump storm made it clear to us that this sort of distrust of government — of feeling that you are being screwed by those who should stick up for you — cannot go on ?

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

Author: hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

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