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Budget boosts for schools, jobs, but questions remain

Micah Nemiroff

The school budget allocates $2.8 million to promoting graduation efforts and aiding lower-achieving students more likely to drop out of school. But the devil is in the details.

The Boston About Results (BAR) program — the city’s performance measurement system, which helps the city’s managers, Massachusetts policymakers and citizens alike understand how city programs and initiatives are performing — set forth a goal for the schools for reducing the dropout rate among BPS seniors to 7.9 percent in the coming year. According to state Department of Education data released in March, the rate among Boston seniors for the 2006-2007 school year was 10.5 percent. A Boston Public Schools spokesman said the district has not yet released dropout figures for the ’06-’07 school year.

How the BAR arrived at the target number remains unclear. Yoon said the mysterious  methodology points to a larger institutional problem that the city must address — presenting information without a full explanation, particularly when it comes to expenses.

To that end, Yoon is an advocate for performance-based budgeting (PBB), a method of allocating funds to achieve specific results. He said he feels strongly that the city needs to reevaluate its method of dealing with the dropout crisis, and one element in doing so — which he hopes to adopt for the city as a whole — is using PBB to measure school programs.

“We need to link how we define the problem to what it costs, and because the dropout crisis is getting worse, we need to start to understand the issue,” he said.

City Councilor Chuck Turner said he voted for the budget in the hope that the city can come up with a stronger assessment of youth between the ages of 16-24 to better understand their needs. He agrees with Yoon that the city needs to be more specific about both its expenditures and its plan of attack.

“There wasn’t clarity on the approach to the dropout issue,” Turner said. “I don’t think our programs are designed to reach out to the young, jobless population.”

Turner said he believes there was no strategy in finding out information about how to better serve youth who are not in school and jobless.

“I think we need a citywide mentorship program, and one of the things that I was looking at was how to develop a survey to find out what sort of jobs the community is looking for,” he said. He added that his vote for the budget was largely contingent on the development of such a survey.

It is unlikely that all of the answers will be found in city funding. Amid the confusion and disagreement, one clear element that has frustrated all participating parties and, some say, hampered the city’s effort to improve operations is the flat increase in state and federal funding.

Title I funding, the biggest source of federal funding to schools, had been cut by $7.8 million in the last two years, and another cut is expected in this fiscal year, according to a March memo from Johnson, the BPS superintendent, requesting the school committee approve the system’s recommended budget.

Although state funding in the form of Chapter 70 appropriations — the state’s main program for appropriating funds to elementary and secondary schools — is expected to increase slightly, that bump is dampened by charter school assessments, which cost the city school district, resulting in an increase of only $1.5 million over last year.

“This is not sufficient to keep up with the higher cost of doing business,” Johnson wrote.

Another element that has hampered the funds for schools is the decline in enrollment. According to budget statistics, BPS enrollment declined by at least 200 students this past academic year and has dropped by nearly 6,000 students over the last 5 years. This has stalled increases in external funds such as Chapter 70 and Title I, which are based in part on student enrollment.