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Students, parents demonstrate against budget cuts

Hundreds march on City Hall, State House

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Students, parents demonstrate against budget cuts

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Hundreds of parents, students, teachers and activists trickled through the metal detectors at city hall and marched, chanting, to the mayor’s office to call for greater funding for public schools.

The demonstrators were brought together by Boston Education Justice Alliance to participate a national day of walk-in protests. The Boston demonstrators delivered to the mayor’s staff a list of demands and more than 3,500 signatures on a petition to reverse BPS budget deficits.

The protesters then marched down Tremont Street to the State House, where they filled Nurse’s Hall to standing room capacity before marching to the governor’s office.

Neither the Gov. Charlie Baker nor Mayor Martin Walsh were available to meet, their staff members said. Demonstrators submitted a request to meet with the governor to discuss school funding in a letter that questioned Baker’s priorities: “We the people do not understand why GE is more important than Boston Public Schools,” it read.

The event received attention from officials: City Councilor Tito Jackson attended the rally and City Councilor Ayanna Pressley shook hands with marchers as they filed out of the mayor’s office. State Sen. Sal DiDomenico helped sponsor the event, reserving the space in the State House for demonstrators to gather and give speeches, organizers said.

Predicted cuts

Walsh has proposed a $13.5 million — or 1.3 percent — increase to BPS’ budget — but with the rate of inflation at 3 percent and some costs rising, BPS advocates say the result is a cut in school budgets and predict many positions and programs will be slashed. Estimates have put BPS’ budget shortfall at $50 million.

“We’re talking about every single high school getting cut somewhere between $300,000 and — at the very top end —$800,000 to a million dollars. That’s really catastrophic to our education system in general,” Heshan Berents-Weeramuni of the Citywide Parent Council, told the Banner.

Jessica Pereira, grade 7 student at Joseph Lee School, said her school may cut music, art and technology programs as well as its only remaining after school program, debate team. Nino Brown, who is in his second year teaching at Young Achievers, said the school stands to lose needed staff and emotional support programs.

“I have students who have post-traumatic stress syndrome, who don’t have stable housing,” Brown said. “Students who have severely high needs. If they do cut the budget, we won’t have human resources to deal with students who have those special needs and make sure they get an education.”

Prioritizing education

BEJA’s ten-point list of demands for city and state officials include a call for no budget shortfalls this year and a restoration of the $140 million they say BPS lost over the last three years, improvement of BPS school facilities and greater investment in schools staffing and services.

The budget cuts are a question of priorities not available funds, many protestors said.

“In a city as rich as Boston, we shouldn’t be scrambling for education funds,” said Marléna Rose, BEJA campaign coordinator. Many pointed to the tax breaks and credits offered to General Electric, as well as some in the city’s willingness to invest in the Olympics as indication that the city is not cash-strapped.

Among the other demands are making the Boston School Committee an elected body — instead of one whose members are appointed by the mayor —and giving voting power to student members. The School Committee is currently reviewing the budget and has the power to amend it. On March 23, the Committee will vote on the budget. The City Council will receive the budget in April and vote on it by June 30.

Officials’ Stances

City Council chair of the Education Committee, Tito Jackson similarly pointed to the budget as a question of political will, saying that elected officials must recognize the need to allocate funds to cover BPS’ expected $50 million shortfall.

“The mayor proposes a budget and has the opportunity to modify, change and increase or decrease the budget as he feels fit,” Jackson said. “I believe, in the nearly $3 billion budget, that there is enough money to fully-fund the Boston Public Schools.”

The city contributes considerably to BPS funding — spending more on education than on all other departments combined — and there is some potential for that amount to increase, according to the City of Boston. This especially is likely if collective bargaining drives up wages.

“The increased appropriation [to BPS] in [Walsh’s] first two years was more than the increase of all other city departmental appropriations combined,” Boston Chief of Communications, Laura Oggeri, said in a statement. “The city looks forward to working with BPS to find the right balance of continued support for existing programming and services with investments in new initiatives as they move through the budget process.”

The Walsh administration anticipates appropriating $1.027 billion to BPS for fiscal year 2017.

City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George is vice chair of the Committee on Education, a BPS parent and former teacher. The Education Committee has yet to convene around the budget this session, she said. Her view is that the budget solution could entail further city spending, but will also rely on finding more efficient uses of BPS’s budget.

“I think there’s some room for [the budget] to change, but as a school system we need to look very closely at how we’re spending this billion dollars,” Essaibi-George said.

One major area for emphasis she said: appealing to the state for more money.

“Where there are some gaps we need to as a city make sure we are funding them but also make sure we’re doing a better job of petitioning the state for better funding reimbursements,” she said. “There’s a significant gap between what we’re giving the state as a city, in terms of revenue what we give to the state — whether income tax or sales tax — and what we’re getting back. “

State aid — in the form of Chapter 70 funding — has been decreasing over the past eight years, and dropped considerably from 1999 levels. In 1999, Chapter 70 aid covered 31 percent of BPS’s general fund budget, according to a BPS report; last year it covered 11 percent.

On the web:

Petition against BPS budget cuts: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/stop-budget-cuts-to-boston?source=c.em.mt&r_by=10237357

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