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City Council passes BPS budget 9-4

Jule Pattison-Gordon
City Council passes BPS budget 9-4
Anissa Essaibi-George

The city council passed the Boston Public Schools revised budget proposed by Mayor Martin Walsh with a vote of nine to four. The vote Wednesday comes after months of high-profile advocacy by parents, students and teachers. While many councilors expressed disappointment and frustration with the BPS budget, the only votes to reject it came from Tito Jackson, Ayanna Pressley, Annissa Essaibi-George and Andrea Campbell.

Walsh’s resubmitted budget directs additional funding into new projects and planning, but it also maintains reductions in the allocations to students with social emotional needs and autism and does not fully restore cuts to early learning and early education centers. Opposing councilors said schools will be left without nurses and librarians, and children with trauma and special needs may not be adequately served.

“What we have before us is a budget that expands the achievement gap,” Jackson, chair of the Committee on Education, said. “I believe its unconscionable to support the school budget that will hurt and harm the Boston Public Schools yet again, year after year.”

Those who support the budget cited reasons such as concerns that there may not be more money available to add and no better budget forthcoming. Some advised focusing on identifying more effective spending strategies.

Councilor Josh Zakim said the budgets presented reflected the reality of revenue limitations.

“[This is]a reasonable budget that makes use of our limited resources,” he said. “Unfortunately, we cannot write a blank check.”

Special education and trauma

Funding for autistic students will drop by 8 percent and for students with trauma by 21 percent under this budget, Jackson said. Campbell cited the change to per pupil allocations as one of the main reasons she opposed this budget, and several councilors Michael Flaherty and Sal LaMattina, who voted for the budget, said the cuts were a serious concern as well.

The budget also means that not every school will be supplied with a nurse, Pressley said. This lack is a critical problem she said, arguing that children cannot learn effectively when they are struggling to cope with unaddressed needs such as hunger and emotional trauma, be it trauma from a tragedy such as the shooting at the Burke or a life disruption such as a divorce in the family.

Flaherty said he was pleased by the $4.7 million added to BPS in Walsh’ revised budget, but added that he recognized it was not enough.

Small cost fixes?

While Jackson said public schools face a $22 million to $28 million shortfall, Essaibi-George and Pressley said even small investments could be deeply impactful.

“For $600,00 we could have saved all the librarians being cut. For $300,00 we could put reading specialists in all the schools losing reading recovery programs” Essaibi-George said. “For $2.2 million, we could give all of those schools the support they need.”

She said political battles between elected officials had interrupted collaboration and distracted form finding practical solutions to the needs of the city’s children.

“Sound bites and grandstanding got in the way of productive discussions,” she said.

Pressley said meeting the needs of trauma-impacted students is within the city’s reach.

“I’ve been asking for 20 more nurses, just 20 more nurses. I don’t think that’s a lot,” she said. “All the autonomy and fancy investments and rigor in the world are not going to improve outcomes if our students are not whole.”

Is there money?

Councilors Mark Ciommo and Michelle Wu called the budget “fiscally responsible,” and Councilor Bill Linehan said that the school budget has been rising at a rate that is untenable.

Individual schools budgets are derived based on projected enrollment numbers and presumptions of how much it costs to meet needs, such as providing special education services.

The current school budget averages out to provide $20,000 to educate each student, Linehan said.

“If every parent has $20,000 to educate their kid, they could do one hell of a job if they spent their money on education,” he said. Councilor Frank Baker agreed that this seemed sufficient.

Linehan said he made his calculation by dividing the overall school budget by the number of students enrolled. This does not reflect that more funding is allocated to educate students with more intensive needs than for students with standard needs. The state’s Department of Education pegs Boston’s per-pupil spending at $18,318.

Jackson argued that schools are facing cuts at a time when Boston’s economy is strong. Funds could be freed up from projects, such as a $15 million investment in the North Avenue Bridge, and directed to BPS or other programs for youth and the homeless, he said.

Meanwhile, Wu and Flaherty advised spending reforms.

“There are deep structural issues in Boston public schools that we need to address and need to reform,” Wu said.

Ineffective programs should be identified and their funding redirected into more impactful programs, Flaherty said.

If no budget agreement was reached by this Friday, the city would enter fiscal year 17 with the FY 16 budget provided in monthly installments.

Matt O’Malley said voting no today would mean the FY 16 budget went forth, “which would be catastrophic.”

Unclear strategy

Campbell and Pressley said they want greater clarity about the logic that guided the school department’s budgeting plans.

While the mayor’s budget provides for valuable initiatives such as expanding advanced work classes to more fourth grade students and providing more K1 seats, Campbell said, they come at too high a cost.

“No teacher, principal or parent I spoke to said, ‘Bring about these programs but cut programs we know work,” she told the banner. “My question to BPS is, ‘Where did this strategy come form?’ ”

Pressley said that while BPS needs more funding, it also needs a cohesive view of its values and prioritizes to guide how the money is spent.

“The investments that are being made are very challenging to be celebrating because we are pairing those investments with divestments in other areas where we still need to improve,” she said.

Linehan, Baker and Tim McCarthy framed their approval of the budget as indicators of support for Superintendent Tommy Chang and a way of giving him a chance to prove himself.

Wu also told councilors that passing a budget does not mean an end to work to improve schools.