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Children, parents protest new BPS budget proposal

Fears for elementary, special education needs

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Children, parents protest new BPS budget proposal
Speakers at the St. Patrick’s Day rally included students, Young Achievers teacher Nino Brown and City Councilor Tito Jackson.

The latest Boston Public Schools budget proposal provoked outcry from parents, students and teachers, many of whom expressed fears that the plan will harm the education of young children and students with special needs. Several teachers told the Banner at a rally last week that the school system is hard-pressed to absorb any funding reductions.

Elementary school children joined parents, teachers and older students at a School Committee budget hearing last week to speak in opposition to funding reductions. The open session for public testimony lasted nearly four hours.

Advocates followed this up with a St. Patrick’s Day rally the next day, gathering teachers, parents and students ranging from elementary through high school to demonstrate outside City Hall. When the protestors brought their cause inside, they eventually secured the presence of Mayor Martin Walsh, who stepped out of meetings for approximately 40 minutes to hear concerns and answer questions.

“We feel like it’s a desperate time,” said Chris Hoeh, one of the St. Patrick’s Day rally organizers, who said he wanted to see change before the School Committee budget vote on March 23.

Tough vote

Wednesday’s School Committee vote regards the new budget proposal. This latest budget shields high schools from the majority of the expected cuts, not by adding money, but instead by taking $6 million from new initiatives and additional funds from other areas, such as the city’s five early education centers.

An affirmative vote means passing on to the mayor and City Council a budget that puts on hold many initiatives described as “critical to closing the opportunity and achievement gap,” according to the BPS fiscal year ‘17 budget proposal document. Voting it down means sending on the February proposal that slashed high school funding, according to Dan O’Brien, BPS press secretary.

Rally co-organizer Malikka Williams spoke with Mayor Martin Walsh. Her son, Malik Closs (center), is a student with special needs at JP Manning Elementary School.

A spark of hope: Some, such as school Superintendent Tommy Chang, expressed expectations that new funding will come from state and federal sources, allowing items to be reinstated into the finical plan.

According to Chang, the new budget in part reflects timing needs: providing money to high schools now enables initial hiring for next year’s teachers, before top picks are snatched up by other schools. Hiring early is especially important in securing a diverse teaching staff, he said.

“We know that money now means more for our schools than it would be in June, so we immediately refunded the cuts that were made for high schools,” Chang said.

Early education centers

Administrators at early education centers were initially informed that the EECs would lose $1.6 million, sparking fears from parents that schools would lose their Surround Care Programs, which extend the day from 7:30 a.m. to 4:35 p.m. Several parents complained that they had been informed last minute about the cuts.

Kevin Braga, co-chair of the school site council at Haynes EEC, and his K1 son Austin, attended the School Committee hearing. According to the school’s 2014-2015 Report on Teaching and Learning, more than 84 percent of students at the school are low-income. Many parents are reliant on Surround Care, Braga said.

“There are people who can’t afford to find afterschool care. Many parents told us they’d have to quit their jobs,” he said, to look after their children if the program ended. For one parent, the extra program hours meant she had time to go back to school herself

After being informed of the cuts, EEC school leaders rallied quickly to plan how to absorb reductions, working right up through the day of the committee meeting, according to a letter.

O’Brien said the cut was reduced from $1.6 million to $900,000 and that while it is not yet clear what effect the reduction will have, Surround Care hours will be maintained and the programming will remain similar.

Special education

Several parents at the St. Patrick’s Day rally spoke of the criticality of special education services to their children. The new budget, like the February one, reduces the per-pupil funding allocated for students with autism and emotional impairments.

Janicks Serrano-Lamby has a five-year-old autistic son who attends and receives speech therapy at the Joseph Lee School. She said she fears what budget cuts at his school could mean, especially if he loses the after-school or extended summer program. Her son already struggles to adjust to schedule changes, such as having five days of school and two days without. An entire summer without regular programming would be jarring to him, she said. The school staff also has been vital in helping her to understand her son, who often uses noises and gestures to communicate, she said.

One result of reduced special education funding will be increased class sizes. However, Chang emphasized that even these larger class sizes will remain small, staying below state recommendations.

Absorbing losses, seeking funds

This year’s budget reductions are the final straw after years of being under-resourced, said Neema Avashia, grade 8 civics teacher at the John W. McCormack Middle School.

“The assumption is, this is the first loss,” she told the Banner at the St. Patrick’s Day rally, “but actually it’s the biggest of many that have happened over time. We weren’t at full capacity in the first place. Now we’re losing more.”

Among the effects: The school administration had intended to bring on a librarian this year, allowing them to re-establish a library for the first time in years, she said. Cuts may prevent that.

Leaf Elhai, teacher at the Fenway High School said the school has been under-funded for years and lacks important supports. The school cannot afford a needed bilingual student support counselor or to have a nurse stay past noon, she said.

“That’s not OK,” Elhai said about the nurse, noting that there is little recourse for children who get sick in the afternoon. “That’s not safe.”

At the budget hearing, Excel High School student Edward Tapia objected to a plan that shifted cuts to lower grades instead of infusing more money.

“Our peers at middle and elementary schools are facing huge cuts,” Tapia said. “Those students will be coming to high school too, and they need the resources necessary for success. This shouldn’t be about sparing some and hurting others.”

Some, like City Councilor Tito Jackson, say the money is there. Speaking at the rally, Jackson said that the city took in an extra $95 million in real estate taxes this year and could fill BPS’ funding gap: “That money is in the coffers of the city,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mayor Walsh told demonstrators that even if revenue is rising, so are personnel costs in areas such as school and police departments. The city spends significantly on BPS, allotting 40 percent of its budget to schools, and school costs are growing at unsustainable levels, he said.

“We’ll work to make sure we continue to fund our Boston public schools,” Walsh told protestors, adding as well, “The costs of the schools … is growing out of control in some areas. The school department has to put that under control.”