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Mayor outlines plans for schools, development

Parents protest during state of the city speech

Mayor outlines plans for schools, development
Picket line in front of Symphony Hall (Photo: Banner)

Jule Pattison-Gordon & Yawu Miller

One-hundred and twenty-five Boston Public School parents, teachers, students and activists protested the predicted budget cuts to Boston Public Schools, maintaining a picket line as guests lined up for Mayor Martin Walsh’s second state of the city address.

Inside, Walsh prepared to give a speech calling for support for his policies, several of which the demonstrators outside denounced, including a unified enrollment system that would automatically sign parents up for charter and district schools. Walsh also drew some positive attention for his stated commitment to sufficiently fund BPS.

Outcry and hope over BPS budgets

Mary Lewis-Pierce, parent advocate and special education attorney, who led the protest, said its goal was to pressure Walsh into prioritizing BPS funding. Spurred by the mayor’s announcement last week of $50 million in cuts to Boston schools, a coalition of parent and student groups converged for the demonstration, including the Boston Education Justice Initiative, Citizens for Public Schools, the Citywide Parent Council, Quality Education for Every Student and Youth Organizing United for the New Generation

“Things are at a breaking point now,” Lewis-Pierce said “If they continue to slice away resources form the schools, the schools will become non-functional.”

“These budget cuts to public education are not acceptable, especially in the light of all the tax breaks that are being given to big corporations to come into Boston,” said Marléna Rose, campaign coordinator with Boston Education Justice Alliance, who attended the protest.

Speaking before the mayor’s speech, City Councilor Tito Jackson said the city has the resources to better fund its schools, citing the recent tax break deal to bring General Electric’s head office to Boston.

“We are a very well-resourced city,” he said. “If we can give tax breaks to corporations, why aren’t we fully funding schools? We’re not moving in the right direction. Our budget is a values statement.”

Walsh acknowledged such budget fears in his State of the City address.

“I’m calling on everyone to come together to back all our children, all our teachers, and all our schools. That means fair and sustainable funding for both district and charter schools,” he said in a copy of his remarks sent to the media.

He underscored his commitment to BPS by inviting of hundreds of its students to attend.

“I invited them, because they need to be part of the conversation about the direction their city is heading,” Walsh said in his remarks. “When it comes to our schools, they deserve to know that their Mayor stands behind them.”

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the statements were encouraging.

“[Walsh] did comment that he wanted to see a thriving city with enough money and resources for charter schools as well as public schools. I took that to be a positive comment that he would perhaps address the budget issues that we’re facing right now,” Stutman said. “He’s shown that he wants a unified city with good schools of both kinds. That was encouraging. I think he went out of his way to stay that.”

Walsh’s statement did not include specifics on how funding needs would be addressed.

School Superintendent Tommy Chang speaks to parent activists Peggy Wiesenberg and Karen Kast-McBride.

At the protest, School Superintendent Tommy Chang observed and engaged parent activists in discussions. Chang told blogger Karen Kast-McBride that the proposed school budget may well change.

“The mayor has told me that he’s committed to getting more resources,” Chang said. “We’re early in the budget process.”

But Chang also cautioned that the city has to work on fixing a longstanding structural deficit caused by rising costs of pensions, health care and transportation.

“Those are costs we have to look at,” he said. “I’m proud the Boston Public Schools invests more in teachers than other cities do, but these are costs we have to look at.”

Chang said that until the district is able to rein in costs, budget cuts will likely be a yearly challenge.

“We’re in a structural deficit,” he said. If we don’t figure this out, we’ll be in the same place next year.”

Among the demonstrators were Michael Salazar a sophomore at Boston Community Leadership Academy, which is slated for a $800,000 cut to its budget.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “Were one of the best schools in Boston.”

Amarielis Moralis, a 2013 BCLA graduate now attending Wheelock College, said the cuts would likely diminish the school’s stature.

“It had a good student-to-teacher ratio,” she said. “It’s going to have an impact on the kids who are our future.”

Universal enrollment and early education

Another item on Walsh’s education agenda is exploring universal enrollment.

“This spring we will deepen the enrollment conversation, to address challenges in special education, language services, discipline policies, and transportation,” he said. He called unified enrollment “[a] system that could help families and level the playing field among schools.”

Universal enrollment has been unpopular with BPS activists, many of whom see it as a system that may draw more resources out of the public school system.

Walsh also advocated for increasing early education seats — something he looked to the state to fund.

“We’ve stretched funding as far as it will go,” Walsh said. “And we are not alone. I ask leadership at the State House, and every legislator, to work with Boston, with Lawrence, with Salem, with Attleboro and other cities and towns to expand access to high-quality pre-kindergarten.”

Stutman emphasized the importance of early education, but expressed doubts that the Baker administration will provide funding.

“I have my doubts that the governor is interested in these things,” Stutman said. “The governor has said it’s not a priority of his.”

“It’s outrageous in this great wealthy state of ours we can’t afford public education for four year olds,” he added.

Housing and community planning

Walsh announced the creation of an Office of Housing and Stability to further efforts to let residents stay in their communities as rents rise. The new department, he said, will “develop resources for tenants, incentives for landlords who do the right thing and partnership with developers to keep more of our housing stock affordable.”

Dorchester’s Glove Corner – an area between Freeport Street and Interstate 93 – and Roxbury’s Dudley Square will be the focus of new community planning. Other initiatives include plans to increase park land and make the city more affordable to seniors.

Walsh also announced that Sara Myerson, director of Imagine Boston, will become the Planning Director at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Jobs and businesses

Walsh seeks to boost small businesses and employments through a variety of initiatives including a new Small Business Center, an apprenticeship program aimed at low-income workers, a resource to help employers hire local and a task force to study the impact of a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Walsh lauded the achievements of Boston and spoke of the need to ensure equitable share of the city’s offerings.

“I’ve asked Bostonians to come together, and go the extra mile, to make sure our success reaches everyone. I’ve asked because I know that not just the state of our city, but the soul of our city, is strong.” he said. “We will meet our challenges and keep changing the world. And our future will be greater than any one of us can imagine.”