BOSTON SCHOOLS : $ 975 MILLION FY 2015 BUDGET APPROVED

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^ bringing Boston Schools quietly but hugely onto a change path : Superintendent John McDonough

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The Boston School Department’s new fiscal year budget was approved last night — unanimously. Superintendent John McDonough now has $ 975,000,000 to allocate — a four percent increase from last year, thanks, as McDonough said at the meeting, to Mayor Walsh’s “generosity” — to the education of some 57,000 children.

You might suppose that a unanimous budget approval would have been quick and easy. It wasn’t. The vote came only after three and a half hours of what Committee Chairman O’Neill called “public comment.” Almost all of this commentary was testified by more or less the same advocacy groups — Boston Truth, Citizens for Public Schools — that have been fighting the entirety of school reforms that Massachusetts has instituted since the Bill Weld years. Charter schools, MCAS, “testing fatigue,” even the race card : all were adduced by a good 30 or so teachers, parents, and advocates seeking — “begging,” aid one witness — full funding for a school system that is making what McDonough called “difficult trade offs.”

The Committee listened respectfully to every witness, many of them reading from prepared statements; a few read the same statement from the same yellow-green sheet of paper. For several months now, I have been listening to these citizens saying pretty much the same thing at rally after rally; I suspect the School Committee has heard it far more than that. Yet the seven committee members were more than ready to accord each witness full graciousness, despite the chants and shouts of a protest going on outside the hearing room, a protest loud enough that it was often hard to hear the speakers.

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^ the unease was momentary : Chairman Michael O’Neill

I doubt that the protest made a favorable impression upon the Committee members. Chairman O’Neill showed his unease. But John McDonough didn’t move an eyelash. Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman at in the second row of the audience, a grin upon his face…

There was other testimony, including from Councillor Tito Jackson, who opposed the Department;s plan to use the T for transporting students. But the Principal of the Jackson-Mann school in Allston approved the plan, even as he noted how strange it felt that one of his teacher staff was in the room testifying against it.

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Parents, two officers of the NAACP, and two school bus drivers testified against McDonough’s T Plan, which envisions 7th and 8th grade students and contemplates 6th graders too. The most convincing witnesses cited safety concerns — convincing because the T isn’t safe in many Boston neighborhoods.

Only because McDonough’s staff researchers presented the Plan’s basis as thoroughly as possible were the Committee’s many questions answered. A compromise was added by Chairman O’Neill ; that the Plan be subject to a safety review to be presented to the Committee in 60 days.

Thus amended, the plan was adopted unanimously.

Many in the audience did not like it one bit.

It soon became apparent that that vote was the big one. The room fell quiet, and there was actually much less to-do on the Budget Vote itself. Committee members made brief comments and then came the unanimous vote.

After which John McDonough summed up the night’s doings. In his voice so quiet, almost without affect, as if there were no passions involved, just dry statistics, he spoke huge policy momentum in a few eloquent sentences:

“For months we have heard from you,” he said. “At hearings we have heard parents’ concerns. You get it. I applaud the involvement of so many passionate parents and teachers.

“This isn’t about charter schools or standard schools. it’s about making all schools better.

Am I happy with this budget ? No, i am not. I wish i could present a different budget. in the end, there is only so much revenue. Trade-offs have to be made. We have to close the achievement gap.

McDonough concluded : “This is NOT a budget cut ! Thanks to the generosity of Mayor Walsh, we have a four percent increase, whole other city departments are getting only one percent.”

Neither McDonough nor anyone else in the room mentioned that almost all of that four percent is slated to pay teachers’ pay raises negotiated in the last union bargain. Obviously not everyone drawing upon the $ 975 million budget is begging.

McDonough is determined to make big changes . I suspect that the teachers union contract is high on the list of changes he seeks. He seems to have the full confidence of the School Committee to do that and more. It will not be simple or quick. It can’t be. Listed prominently in McDonough’s Memorandum — handed out to all at the hearing — is this “priority” item :

“extending hiring autonomy to all schools to hire qualified, diverse candidates early, with $ 6.1 million supporting the success of our early hiring initiative and an additional $ 400,000 to support hiring diversity.”

Even Richard Stutman can’t stop this. it’s in the current teacher contract. Boston is also under court order to increase the diversity of its schools staff.

Yet Stutman has his troops, and they are getting the bulk of the budget’s additional $ 37 million. even as support staff positions are being cut in some schools.

This must change, but even larger changes are coming. Testing will increase; school competition too. Employers insist. So does an overwhelming majority of Massachusetts voters and probably a big majority of Boston voters too.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

UPDATED 03/27/14 at 3.3 PM

BOSTON MAYOR FINAL : BOTH MEN WIN 1ST DEBATE

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^ John Connolly — Marty Walsh : first face off of three

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Boston’s first face to face between John Connolly and Marty Walsh was a winner for both men. John Connolly was the clear winner on presentation and policy discussion. Walsh, however, also won, by simply showing up and holding his own, most of the night, and occasionally on top. He benefited by being the lesser known of the two. It’s always that way in a first debate. the underdog always wins; and with 18 to 23 percent of Boston’s voters undecided — so say the recent polls — Walsh almost couldn’t lose. and as he was always articulate and quite knowledgeable during the Forums held before Primary day, it was pretty clear that he WOULDN’T lose.

That Walsh won last night we see by twitter follower numbers. Since the debate began, Walsh has picked up 64 new twitter follows, Connolly 40. (Numbers as of 10.40 AM today.) Small evidence, but palpable. Last night Walsh increased his support more than Connolly did.

Still, Connolly did gain. He stayed reasonably close to Walsh only because his policy presentation commanded the night. The first five questions were about education, Connolly’s issue; education came up again later, and often. He also dominated Walsh on city finances and budget issues. How could he not ? It gave him the opportunity to raise “the union issue,” Walsh’s riskiest attribute, in a context that emphasized its risk. But there was more. Walsh exhibited a lack of understanding of admittedly technical finance matters. He tried to attack Connolly for not being present during a certain city union contract negotiation ; Connolly pointed out that by law he was not allowed to be there, in the negotiating room. Responding to a question about raising City revenue, Walsh talked about bringing in new businesses — but on a regional basis. How would bringing new businesses to Somerville — a city that he specifically cited — add revenue to Boston ? The question was not asked of him.

My observers pointed out that, in discussion of the bill that Walsh has filed to remove City Council review power over arbitrators’ union contract awards, when pressed on its effect, he said “no comment.” It was the big talking point for most journos. Myself, I found it a proper answer. That hill, House 2467, is one that hangs over Walsh’s campaign like a storm of belfry bats. Far better to shut up than to talk of it.

That bill will come up again, though. two debaters remain. Walsh will no longer be the lesser known man. Unless Walsh quickly finds a way to master the details of city finances, and to deflect the effect on them of higher city worker pay awards, and to explain away House 2467, the contradictions in his campaign will stand out for all viewers to grasp, much to his detriment.

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^ Pastor Bruce Wall, Meg Connolly, John Connolly, Pastor Minyard Culpeper, Pastor William Dickerson

Meanwhile, Connolly is deepening his connection to Boston’s Black community and widening it, to people not often reached by anyone, and in ways I haven’t seen since John Sears ran for Mayor in 1967. That was before the huge social and political split that took place during the fight over Boston school segregation and school busing, a crisis whose passions took almost two generations to abate. Connolly’s achievement — worked at over many, many years — seems to me to have entirely swamped Walsh’s endorsement by Charlotte Golar-Richie. In campaigns as serious as this one, years and years of hard won trust and connection, on a very personal level too, can not be turned aside by a two-month embrace, no matter how noble and sincere the outreach.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere