IS BOSTON’s $ 1.273 billion 2020 SCHOOL BUDGET WORTH IT ?

John McDonough was the most effective, and one of the best liked, Boston school superintendents of my lifetime. The next super should be someone as much like him as feasible.

Every year now, Boston’s Schools system budget grows by a larger percentage than any other City account. For the coming year, the increase breaks all records : up from $ 1.19 billion to $% 1.273 billion. That’s an increase of $ 83 million dollars : 7.5 percent. In previous years, the increase amounted to three percent, or less than that. So why the huge bump ? Before I take a “deep dive,” as the current slang has it, into the numbers. I have to note that there’s actually a different Boston school budget, one that represents only direct allocation of City money. That budget hasn’t increased very much, only $ 27 million, or 2.6 percent — well within the usual — from $ 1.112 billion to $ 1.139 billion. I’ll take a closer look at both budgets, but before I do that, however, let me insert this quote about education from my friend Ed Lyons, who podcasts often about public spending matters :
Enrollment keeps going down. Spending must keep going up, despite education being information in the middle of an information revolution that makes everything else cheaper. Time for real change in education.

Unfortunately, we who advocate major education reform lost that fight in 2016, when the state’s education bureaucracies, commandeering every elected school committee in our 351 municipalities, beat back an attempt to open up the number of “charter” schools. Encouraging more “charter” schools might have invited a host of innovative school reforms, including online learning, home tutoring, small group experiments, and technology academies. None of that happened, and thus for the foreseeable future we’re left with taxpayer dollars funding an inflexible, sometimes cumbersome — and always too expensive — learning apparatus. One should look at Boston’s $ 1.273 billion schools proposal in this no-reform context. School accounts are given little choice but to continue feeding the beast.

As for the FY 2020 school budget, here’s a link to the proposal, itemized by school. It’s very difficult using this account method to focus on staff salaries at all, much less increase in staffing budgets : https://www.bostonpublicschools.org/cms/lib/MA01906464/Centricity/domain/184/budgetvisualization/index.html#/SchoolAllocationActivities/SchoolBySchool

Next comes the school budget using only direct City alloocations. It itemizes in the normal manner, by classification, not by school, and is easier to examine : https://www.bostonpublicschools.org/cms/lib/MA01906464/Centricity/Domain/184/190307FY20%20budget%20hearingcentral.pdf

Using the direct allocation budget, you’ll notice that the three salary and benefit accounts total $ 144 million, only $ 2 million higher than last year. The budget note says this results from “cost control efforts.” We’re not told what these are, however the schools budget does not list the three school facilities that the City closed this year. Perhaps custodial employees assigned to those facilities were laid off or took retirement ? The only account with an increase higher than most is the “Student Services,” which jumped from $ 54 million to $ 60 million. Why ? We are told this : Replacing federal funding for PEG grant (pre-K at community based partners); also includes out of district special ed and vocational placements and adult ed It is unfortunate to see Federal funding lessen, yet certainly no surprise given the proclivities of Mr. Trump. This hit we’ll just have to take. As for other allocations, the transportation account has risen by about 4.5 percent and now totals $ 96 million. That is a lot of money to send kids all over the city pursuant to a Federal Court desegregation order adopted 45 years ago. Nobody wants segregation to return, yet today’s Boston schools operate in an environment enormously unlike that of 1974. The City is much more residentially integrated, and many parents of color today do not prefer transportation over neighborhood seat assigning. Is it time to revisit the Federal Court order ? Maybe.

Next is the FY 2020 budget itemized by account, which you find not on the main web-page but in its “Budget Development” links. This is the link you need to look at if you want to understand the present deployment of schools money : https://drive.google.com/file/d/14sECY0h19xF9DFesrj5j_7YH1ILkYXVo/view

You find, in its “Salary” section, that three sub-accounts have risen five percent or more : ELT — English language Teaching, aides, and secretarial. Within the “Aides”: category, I note these exceptional increases: Security, from $ 1,012,178 to $ 1,147,462; Support specialist, from $ 222,908 to $ 373,338; ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) specialist, from $ 4,412,702 to $ 5,269,499; sign language interpreter, from $ 379,342 to $ 496,716. Evidently 2020’s students reflect, perhaps, an increasing number who aren’t prepared well at home, or experience behavior problems, or have sensory deprivation. I do not know why the last should be true, but maybe it is. In any case, my question would be, is the standard Boston school regulation the right venue for behavior difficulty students, or those who are deaf, or those who need support ? We aren’t soon going to find out, I’m afraid. Meanwhile the cost of meeting these kids’ serious needs goes up.

Perhaps the most disturbing numbers are these : the total salary for administrators and aides has risen 3.5 percent, but the total of teachers’ salaries gained only one percent. For 2020, total salaries to administrators and aides equals $ 144.6 million; total teacher salaries amounts to $ 435.2 million. The balance between actual educators and system managers continues favoring the regulators. Given the bright new leadership elected by the Boston Teachers Union, one hopes that this imbalance will reverse. Either the City’s public schools are directed by educators, or they aren’t. I am sure that teachers value having aides in or near the classroom; yet the only reason why the system keeps adding administrators is that more and more governmental regulations are required of school systems forced to compromise locally individual situations to the rules of common purpose. I would prefer regulatory flexibility, devised by the classroom itself and costing much, much less to operate. I think teachers would agree.

The Boston system serves 55,000 students only, yet it maintains facilities for far more students, who do not attend because they are enrolled elsewhere. This is waste. It should stop — and, to his credit, Mayor Walsh is moving to close down several under-utilized school facilities; he is also consolidating most of the rest. That’s a good start toward budget sense.

It’s not enough, however. Boston’s schools should be able to operate from the classroom upward, for most things — the exam schools entrance exam excepted; there may be other exceptions — rather than from the central office down. John McDonough was a very successful Superintendent because he understood this possibility and was working toward it.

Which brings me to my last topic here : choosing anew Superintendent. Tommy Chang was a poor choice from the beginning. You cannot just import an education bureaucrat from anywhere, to satisfy somebody’s “nationwide search” whimsy, and expect him or her to grasp the culture of our very peculiar system with its litigated history and administrative anomalies. Yet Chang also failed to require the most basic administrative diligence : witness the entirely inexcusable financial failures on his watch (and, in all fairness, from before). How many public school systems do YOU know that have been fined by the IRS for failure to file proper paperwork, or which have taken money from one account to pay shortfalls in another ? The ext superintendent must — MUST — be someone with a long record of accomplishment WITHIN OUR OWN SYSTEM; someone, yes, like John McDonough. That superintendent, once installed in office, must commit to reinventing the entire administrative handbook as well as discarding as much as feasible of the $ 96 million transportation budget. Schools should be teacher and student, as much as possible, not teacher, bus, and student.

—- Mike Freedeberg / Here and Sphere

2 thoughts on “IS BOSTON’s $ 1.273 billion 2020 SCHOOL BUDGET WORTH IT ?

  1. The Boston School System should also start reimbursing suburban school districts $60 Million annually for educating Boston kids in suburban school systems.

    Think about this, Boston taxpayers pay to educate Boston kids in Boston school systems. Yet it is the suburban school system that educate those kids for free. We the taxpayers of the suburbs are paying for over 3,100 other kids. They’ve already been paid for, why aren’t we given the money to educate them in our school systems?

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