^ The Boston School Committee, Mayor Walsh, and School Superintendent Tommy Chang

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There’s a lot to read in Boston’s proposed Public Schools Budget for next year. There’ll be four more public hearings on it before the School Committee votes the final version, and from what I am able to learn from what’s on the table so far, reform is definitely in the cards. Not enough reform, of the many anomalies our Schools Budget tolerates, but an estimable start; the new budget identifies and confronts several snags.

You should first read the FY 2018 proposal for yourself. Here’s the link :

On Page five you’ll find what the Budget calls “ten big ideas.” They are indeed major:

( 1 ) Reduce long-distance BPS transportation by adjusting student assignment policies

( 2 ) adopt State-mandated transportation eligibility standards

( 3 ) Maximize efficiencies in transportation

( 4 ) Reconfigure the (School) District’s footprint

( 5 ) Examine Teacher Wages and School day Length

( 6 ) Advocate for Changes in Tenure Law for Teachers in Suitable Professional capacity Roles

( 7 ) Ensure that Special Education Identification and Administration support Students Appropriately

( 8 ) Streamline Central Office

( 9 ) Advocate to realign State Education Formulas

( 10 ) Advocate to Give Boston more Flexibility to Modify its Revenue Structure

The Budget proposes an overall increase from $ 1.032 billion to $ 1.061 billion. Add to this a $ 9 million collective bargaining reserve in FY 2017 and one of $ 20 million in the proposal budget, the entire Budget rises from $ 1.041 billion to $ 1.081 billion.

If $ 40 million is  being added, what then is being “streamlined” ? Not much. Only “central administration decreases, and by a mere $ 2 million. Even though three of the Budget’s ten “big ideas”: concern transportation, the total cost thereof RISES by $ 8 million — the largest percentage increase (7.4 %) in the new Budget proposed.

Salaries and benefits also rise, by $ 21 million; total employee costs rise by $ 23 million. Add in the $ 20 million collective bargaining reserve and you’ve totaled more than the entire 4 40 million increase touted by the Superintendent. In the 2017 budget, salaries and benefits accounted for $ 815.5 — almost 81 percent of the entire $ 1.032 budget. This year, salaries and benefits total $ 838.7 — about 82.5 percent of the entire year’s allocation.

By itself, the salary and benefits allocation tells us little; taken as a whole of the budget, however, it tells the same story as the $ 40 million increase: that Boston’s Schools Budget — touted by the Superintendent as increasing by $ 143 million since the new city administration took office — is barely keeping pace with staff salaries, leaving less than nothing for classroom equipment, supplies, and repairs and maintenance. No wonder the Budget talks of reducing transportation costs — which it does not do — and central administration staffing — which it barely gets to.

Yet there’s actually a note of dollar value progress in this new Budget : the 40-minute extended school day (negotiated with the Boston Teachers Union in 2014) now reaches 57 schools rather than 18, some 23,445 students up from 7,757. Yet nothing has been done about classrooms under-utilized, and no consolidation, which would save much maintenance and some staffing money. The Budget does, however, admit that Boston’s school day continues to be significantly shorter than the norm in Massachusetts and even shorter versus the national norm.

The Budget notes that enrolloment continues to decline, from, about 56,945 in year 2013 to about 56.050 now. Clearly under-utilization of the District’s 126 schools must be addressed sooner rather than later; but evidently not yet. This is an election year, and school consolidation, with attendant layoffs, is a touchy subject for employees and their parent allies.

Instead the Budget lays upon the State the blame for squeezing facilities for the sake of salaries and benefits. We are told that the State has added only 4 1 million to its fiscal obligation pursuant to chapter 70, the law which supposedly :”compensates” school Districts for those students who choose a charter school rather than the standard school facilities. The Budget expressly blames “stagnant” chapter 70p compensation for its fiscal troubles. I have written before about the puzzlement here. If a District enrolls 10,000 fewer students, that’s; 10,000 students it doesn’t have to educate and thus 10,000 students it doesn’t have to budget for. Why should it then receive compensation ? One would think that 10,000 students going out of District, to charter schools, would lighten the District’s financial burden, not weigh it down. I have yet to hear a rational explanation.

But that’s for the future of a Schools Budget that recognizes the need for big changes — especially its questioning the tenure situation — even if it shies from tackling the big deals yet. Heck, the new budget reduces central administration costs by a full $ 2 million ! How often do you see public service budgets decrease at all ? Three cheers may be too generous just yet, but I’ll give this reduction a very solid half a cheer and the sound of one hand clapping.

Onward to the next four Budget hearings with public comment that will surely be noisy even if less than dramatic.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere