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BPS protesters call on city, state

Activists march to demand more funding for schools facing cuts

Jule Pattison-Gordon
BPS protesters call on city, state
Students, parents, teachers and activists marched on the State House as part of a national day of demonstrations.

Hundreds of parents, students, teachers and activists trickled through the metal detectors at Boston City Hall and marched, chanting, to the mayor’s office to call for more funding for public schools. The demonstrators, brought together by Boston Education Justice Alliance, were part of a national day of walk-in protests. The Boston demonstrators delivered a list of demands to the mayor’s staff, along with a petition carrying more than 3,500 signatures that called upon BPS to fix the deficits.

They then poured out onto Tremont Street and into the State House, where they filled the Nurse’s Hall to standing room only. Several of the activists delivered the same demands to the governor’s office.

Neither the governor nor mayor were available to meet, their staff members said. At the governor’s office, demonstrators submitted a request to meet with Governor Charlie Baker to discuss school funding. In their request letter, they questioned Baker’s priorities: “We the people do not understand why GE is more important than Boston Public Schools,” it read.

The event drew attention from officials: City Councilor Tito Jackson attended the rally, while City Councilor Ayanna Pressley shook hands with marchers as they filed out of the mayor’s office. 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

Mayor Martin 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 that many positions and programs will be slashed. Some have pegged 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, a seventh grade student at Joseph Lee School, said her school may cut music, art and technology programs as well as its only remaining after-school program, the 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 includes a call for no budget shortfalls this year, a restoration of the $140 million they say BPS lost over the last three years, improvement of BPS school facilities and greater investment in school staffing and services.

The budget cuts are a question of priorities rather than 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.

Other demands include making the Boston School Committee an elected body rather than one whose members are appointed by the mayor, and giving voting power to student members. The School Committee currently is reviewing the budget and has the power to amend it. On March 23, the Committee will vote on the budget, followed by a City Council vote on April 6.

By the numbers

$13.5 million: The proposed increase by Mayor Martin Walsh to BPS’ budget — 1.3 percent. With the rate of inflation at 3 percent and some costs rising, BPS advocates say the result amounts to a cut.

$50 million: The estimated shortfall of the BPS budget.

Officials’ stances

Tito Jackson, city council chair of the Education Committee, also 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.”

City authorities assert that it contributes considerably to BPS funding — spending more on education than on all other departments combined — and that some potential exists for that amount to increase. That 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 on budget matters this session, she said. Her view is that the budget solution could entail further city spending, but also will rely on finding more efficient allocation of BPS’s revenues.

“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. “

The Walsh administration similarly noted that state funding has been low. State aid — in the form of Chapter 70 funding — has been decreasing over the past eight years.

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