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BPS budget vote comes after months of protests, activism

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

The city council’s vote on the school budget — scheduled for Wednesday this week — will be the latest development in what has been one of the most contentious budgeting processes in recent history. The year began with a picket line outside the mayor’s January State of the City address and included two student walk-outs, demonstrations and packed budget hearings.

Youth activism entered the picture early, when Boston Community Leadership Academy students produced videos detailing cuts necessitated by the proposed BPS budget that would eliminate their librarian, SAT prep courses and all advanced placement courses.

On March 7, more than 2,000 students walked out of classes and gathered on the Boston Common and at Faneuil Hall, where Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker were holding a joint press conference. Earlier that same day, Walsh testified before a legislative committee that he supports lifting the cap on the number of charter schools operating in Massachusetts, but said it should be done gradually with state-funded reimbursements to district schools. Outside Faneuil Hall, one student contrasted the city’s growing prosperity and declining educational funding with a sign that read “cranes in the sky/cuts in our schools.”

Many, including City Councilor Tito Jackson, questioned why the mayor proposed a $13 million increase in school funding, substantially lower than the $38 million funding increase to school funding last year, even as the city has raked in $115 million more revenue than it received in the previous fiscal year.

Students lead

Student activism remained at the forefront, with young people participating in a St. Patrick’s Day rally for school funding, crowding into school committee meetings and organizing a May walk-out, followed by a rally in front of City Hall and a packed City Council budget committee hearing during which they gave hours of impassioned testimony.

As the debate over the school budget continued, the distance between the mayor and the alliance of student and parent activists widened. Parent groups first began questioning Walsh’s vision for the schools in September, when the group Quality Education for Every Student alleged that the mayor told them BPS would reduce its footprint from the current 128 buildings to 90. Despite multiple eyewitness accounts, Walsh denied making the statement.

As the city pushed forward with plans to create a unified enrollment system, through which parents could be assigned to BPS schools and independent charter schools, parent groups pushed back hard, with many activists claiming Walsh was maneuvering to allow charters to take over BPS buildings.

When Walsh released his budget and highlighted plans to push forward with unified enrollment, parents pushed back hard, with a January picket outside Symphony Hall, where the mayor delivered his yearly address.

Earlier in June, a volley of blog posts by the mayor, the city’s budget director David Sweeney and the QUEST members provided divergent interpretations of the BPS budget after Walsh upped his $13 million school funding increase by $4.7 million, which the parents say still doesn’t close $21 million of the budget gap. Parents also complain that changes in the way BPS calculates student funding have led to a $1,332 drop in per-pupil funding for autistic students and a $3,030 per-pupil drop for elementary students with emotional impairments. Those shifts in funding hurt schools with higher percentages of those populations, like Boston Community Leadership Academy, which the parents say is facing a $500,000 funding gap.

“Unfortunately, no part of the Mayor’s June 13th budget supplement restores resources directly for student learning in BPS schools,” reads the letter from the Citywide Parent Council. “For this reason, the Citywide Parent Council requests a reallocation of appropriations in the FY17 BPS budget to prevent the detrimental classroom level cuts to teaching and learning.”

A BPS spokesman released the following statement in response to the Citywide Parent Council:

“Boston Public Schools (BPS) is grateful for recent additional funding from the City of Boston and Mayor Martin J. Walsh for the fiscal 2017 budget. The vast majority of proposed investments are focused on work that takes place in schools, even though the funds are not directly attached to individual school budgets. BPS worked collaboratively with the City in the spring to focus available dollars on school budgets at that time, when schools needed to begin planning and hiring for next year. BPS now has the opportunity to make investments that provide direct services to students to promote long-term equity, which will allow us to free up more funding for our students in the future, and support the long-term vision for the district.”