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City councilors weigh Walsh’s new budget

Concerns remain over BPS funding, despite boost

Jule Pattison-Gordon
City councilors weigh Walsh’s new budget
Councilors Tito Jackson, Mark Ciommo and Annissa Essaibi-George questioned finance officials from the Walsh administration during Monday’s public hearing.

As of press time, Boston city councilors are facing the prospect of starting the fiscal year without a new budget and weighing that reality against committing to the budget proposed by Mayor Martin Walsh.

At a public hearing on Monday, city councilors peppered finance officials from the Walsh administration with questions over how the mayor’s resubmitted budget proposal will impact schools, the homeless and community health centers.

Councilors had cited these areas when they voted down Walsh’s initial proposal two weeks ago. Their concerns seemed largely left unsated by the $2.98 billion budget resubmission.

By the numbers

$2.87 billion: Mayor Martin Walsh’s original budget proposal

$2.98 billion: Walsh’s resubmitted budget

1.3 percent: The original proposed increase in the BPS budget

1.8 percent: The resubmitted BPS budget increase

4.1 percent: The overall budget increase, in resubmission

“I cannot support a budget that doesn’t fund our students and I believe this [budget] is not responsible,” City Councilor Tito Jackson chair of the Committee on Education, said.

The new budget adds $4.7 million in BPS funding and $300,000 for establishing a city office to support released inmates’ reentry into society, including assistance in finding housing and employment and reconnecting with family and communities.

Several parents and teachers spoke during public testimony to oppose BPS funding reductions, asking the councilors who remained present to vote “no” when the time comes. If they do so, and the mayor and council do not come to an agreement over a new budget, city departments will be funded on the same level as last year, reflecting no spending increase. Few, if any, seem to expect such an eventuality.

BPS’s $4.7 million

Discussion of school funding dominated the hearing. Walsh’s original budget represented a 1.3 percent increase in BPS spending, which opponents said did not keep pace with rising costs. The resubmission incorporates an additional $4.7 million, bumping the increase to 1.8 percent.

Speaking with the Banner last week, Jackson said that BPS still needs an additional $21 million to $28 million to cover the gap.

The new $4.7 million largely does not replenish school-level funding cuts. Instead, 80 percent of it goes to supporting school services that are budgeted centrally, such as improvements to translation services, Katie Hammer, the city budget director said.

At the hearing, Jackson read off a list of schools whose funding gaps he says remain unaddressed. The only restored funding is to the city’s five early education and early learning centers, which now, instead of facing a collective $900,000 decrease face a $685,000 decrease, according to Jackson aide Heshan Berents-Weeramuni.

Hammer said 25 percent of the EEC’s and EEL’s cuts will be restored, with funds split five ways, giving each school $43,000.

Schools balance cuts

Specific schools receive resources in two ways: The district provides them with some services, such as transportation, that it funds itself and also provides each one with an individual budget for items the school decides on, such as teacher hiring.

The city allocates budgets to each school based on projected enrollment numbers and the presumed cost to educate each student’s category of needs (for instance, special education services). The school can then divide this budget as it chooses, meaning that although Walsh’s budget reduces the per-pupil amount allocated for educating students with autism, school administrators could direct the reduction to another area to keep funding level for autistic students.

Hammer pointed to the role of individual schools in deciding their funds’ dispersal in response to a charge from City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, vice chair of the Committee on Education, that tshe current budget will cause some schools to lose their librarian. But Essaibi-George said Hammer’s distinction eludes the larger problem of insufficient funding, as saving the librarian position could then mean losing a teacher instead.

Special education

Essaibi-George and Jackson said they are concerned that students with autism and individual education plans are underfunded and Councilor Matt O’Malley added that parents in his district worry there will be a decline in the teacher and paraprofessional-to-student ratio at the Kilmer and Manning schools.

Hammer assured councilors that the city has reserved approximately $300,000 to cover any additional school-level funding needs that emerge during the fall when actual enrolment numbers become apparent.

City Chief Financial Officer David Sweeney and Hammer also said that while the reductions in per-pupil allocations to children in certain special needs categories needs remain, the budget resubmission provides funds for a data system that will give parents more transparent information on their children’s special education plans.

City Councilor Ayanna Pressley said that adding a new project to help SPED students while decreasing funding to other areas they need is not a true fix, and that further funds are required to achieve fully inclusionary classrooms.

Multiple councilors expressed disappointment that Superintendent Tommy Chang was not present to answer questions.

The hunt for revenue

In response to questions, Sweeney said that, generally speaking, that while some schools may experience costs rising faster than revenue, for the most part, the district believes students are provided for.

“There are naturally increasing costs that are occurring and in some cases revenue is not increasing at quite the same pace, so it creates a stress on individual schools. The district believes in most cases schools are still able to provide a more than adequate education,” he said.

Further school funding is likely to come through collective bargaining agreements, Sweeney said.

Sweeny emphasized said the city’s funding abilities are limited due to declining state aid, heavy and growing dependency on property tax as the city’s primary revenue, and rising costs to the city from underfunded charter school reimbursements

“We’re picking up the slack for all the state funding that’s being reduced,” he said.

Councilor Bill Linehan said Boston’s per-pupil expenditure is a hefty figure and that the city cannot expect its current level of revenue generation to persist. For revenue, he suggested turning to improved enforcement of parking and traffic fees and fines. Linehan asked that instead of cutting staffing in these enforcement positions, vacancies be filled and additional shifts provided. In his experience, he said, traffic enforcement workers generate revenue double their cost of employment, and he cited a pilot program conducted two years ago.

The city also expects it can save $10 million by improving efficiency in how it transports children to school, Hammer said. She highlighted a new $300,000 line item in transporation data collection and analysis that was included in Walsh’s budget resubmission. Jackson expressed doubts that this goal could be achieved, saying no clear plan was presented, while City Councilor Andrea Campbell said she was excited by the potential savings.

Homelessness and health

City Councilor Josh Zakim, chair of the Committee on Housing and Community Development, said he was “disappointed, not surprised” that city-funded housing vouchers were not included in the resubmitted budget. Placing people in homes is the strongest solution to the crisis, he said, adding that he does not question the Walsh administration’s commitment to ending homelessness. Sweeney said housing is among the administration’s priorities. He pointed to investments in programs and a ten percent increase in the Department of Neighborhood Development’s budget.

Pressley continued to raise concerns that community health centers are vital, but overtaxed and underfunded. Officials said that the city’s portion of the center’s financing was reduced to help free up funds that Public Health Commission invested in its Homelessness Services Bureau.

Several councilors, including Campbell and Council President Michelle Wu, asked for greater transparency over future budget construction, along with earlier inclusion in the process.