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Students at center of school funding battle

Protest aimed at plugging gaps in 2017 budget

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Students at center of school funding battle
Nathan Tran Trinh and Fania Joseph rally students in front of City Hall during a demonstration last week.

Several hundred students walked out of class last week in the second such protest this year against budget cuts to Boston Public Schools.

News of the planned demonstration drew a swift rebuke from Mayor Martin Walsh, who told the Boston Herald that adults who were misleading the students were prompting the demonstration.

Students who participated in the demonstration rejected the mayor’s allegation of adult provocateurs.

“You’re looking at the person who organized the whole thing without outside help,” said Boston Green Academy sophomore Jahi Spaloss, clutching a bullhorn amid a throng of students gathered at City Hall Plaza. “The mayor should not assume what he doesn’t know. He’s the one who’s misinformed.”

Spaloss said adults offered support, but that the students remained in control of the event from start to finish.

“We said ‘You can support us, but we are the ones running this movement,’” he said. “This is a youth-led movement from start to finish.”

Inside City Hall, Councilor Tito Jackson used his remarks in a Ways and Means Committee meeting on the school budget to congratulate the students for their demonstration.

“I, for one, am very proud of the young people who are exercising what we need to see, which is real leadership in their generation,” he said.

Tight budget

At issue is a school budget that city officials acknowledge is not keeping pace with the rising costs at BPS. While Walsh has touted his $13.5 million increase in school funding, that increase is substantially smaller than the $30 million increases the schools received in the last three budgets. The city’s budget has increased by 4 percent, but the BPS budget proposed for fiscal year 2017 has increased by just 1.35 percent.

After an earlier student walkout in March, Walsh reversed a series of cuts that would have taken an $800,000 slice from the budget of the Boston Community Leadership Academy. But that school will still likely see $500,000 less in funding this year, due to reductions in funding for students with autism and emotional disabilities, who make up a significant portion of that school’s student body.

Other schools facing reductions include Boston Latin School, which is facing a $95,000 cut; Brighton High School, which stands to lose $124,000; Boston Day and Evening, which faces a $150,000 cut and Charlestown High, which is facing the loss of $350,000. The Joseph Lee school in Dorchester, where nearly a third of the students have autism or emotional disabilities, will see its budget slashed by $253,000.

The students say they are cognizant of the cuts and their potential effects on their schools.

“Marty told us in our faces that we’re not getting cuts,” said Boston Day and Evening Academy senior and demonstration organizer Luis Navarro, referring to a meeting students had with the mayor in March. “But schools are still getting cut. We’re telling him, ‘Please, be honest. We’re not fools.’”

Students from schools facing cuts were out on City Hall Plaza last week and in the City Council’s Ianella Chamber to plead for more funding.

“The City Council and the mayor are supposed to represent all the people here,” said Angel Peña, a student at the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science. “The cries of our students to fully fund our schools, the cries of our students to help them achieve a better future should be your own. You’re supposed to represent the voice of the people.”

Marching from the Boston Common to City Hall, John W. McCormack Middle School eighth grader Jennifer Tran said she doesn’t want other students to miss out on the opportunities she had at the Dorchester school.

“I’m just scared that the people who come to the school next year won’t have the same resources we had,” she said.

In City Hall, the students chanted “BPS, BPS,” before joining the hearing in the Ianella Chamber. As the City Council pores over this year’s budget, the students have emerged as the most ardent cheerleaders for the Boston Schools.

BPS teachers, parents and members of the Socialist Alternative offered testimony. Angel Peña made a plea to preserve funding at the O’Bryant, where some math and science classes may be eliminated, due to funding cuts.

“Imagine the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Sciences with no math and no science,” Peña said. “We often hear politicians speak about how children are our future. What would happen to our future if the previous generation slams shut the doors of opportunity in our faces?”

Outside agitators?

Many of the allegations of outside manipulation of the students, which aired in Boston’s daily papers before and after the walkout, focused on Jackson, who has in recent months been a vocal critic of Walsh’s proposed BPS budget. Jackson showed up at the students’ rally, as did BPS parents and other activists. But Jackson rejected the notion that the students were being goaded to action by adults.

“These young people are intelligent enough to know that cuts are being made that will negatively impact their education,” he said. “The rhetoric that suggests that kids need an older person to tell them how to secure their future is an insult the young people.”

A spokeswoman for Great Schools Massachusetts, the coalition of groups supporting a ballot measure lifting the cap on the number of charter schools in Massachusetts, issued a press release linking to a Boston Globe story highlighting union involvement in the students’ March walk-out and demonstration.

“Boston spends a tremendous amount of resources on public school students,” the press release reads. “According to [the Boston Municipal Research Bureau]: ‘In the current school year, Boston’s budgeted net school spending is $157.6 million above the net school spending required by the state to provide adequate education funding for Boston students.’”

Like most school districts in Massachusetts, Boston does spend more than what it is required to spend, as outlined in the state’s foundation budget. But the Legislature’s Foundation Budget Review Commission last year determined that the funding formula is out of date and does not adequately take into account the costs of health care and special education.

A question of priorities

Jackson says that the city spends a smaller percentage of its budget on education at a time when the city’s revenue collection is higher than ever.

“The city of Boston has more tax revenue that it’s ever had since 1630,” he said. “I find it duplicitous for people to have an issue with BPS kids walking out of school, while these same people applauded when children from charter schools were on the Boston Common, wearing matching tee-shirts at a rally with the governor.”

Although few students spoke about charter schools as they protested budget cuts last week, the Great Schools press release, issued the day before the walkout, underscores the extent to which the battle over public school resources has filtered into the current debate over Boston’s school budget. A BPS-commissioned McKinsey report suggested the district could save money by closing 30 to 50 of its 126 school buildings. Many BPS parents fear the drive to close schools is fueled by the charters’ push to expand in Boston and other Massachusetts cities, a move that enjoys the backing of prominent politicians and local and national foundations.

Back on City Hall Plaza, Spaloss said the impact of budget cuts and charter expansion ultimately falls on the students currently in district-run schools.

“This issue has to do with us more than anyone else,” he said. “One-fifth of the district’s schools could be closed. We want to keep the funding in the budget. We will continue to fight. We will continue to stand our ground.”