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BPS airs bold ideas for cutting costs

Jule Pattison-Gordon
BPS airs bold ideas for cutting costs
Eleanor Laurans, BPS’s chief financial officer, spoke to reporters on Monday. With her: Katie Hammer, city budget director (left) and Erika Giampietro, special assistant to BPS’s superintendent (center).

The Boston Public School budget shortfall that galvanized high school students to walk out en mass and ultimately left some schools without librarians and autistic children in larger classes, are unlikely to be a thing of the past, BPS officials said. That is, unless serious changes happen.

On the web

Read the report, find engagement events and submit online responses: https://medium.com/@DaveSweeney3/analyzing-the-fiscal-impact-of-question-2-9f1a36d 8d823#.595n6e4cm

BPS and city budget officials gathered with reporters on Monday to unveil key ideas on how to substantially alter operations so that school expenditures do not continue to outstrip revenue. But, they were quick to say, at this stage, these remain ideas, not necessarily recommendations.

School costs are expected to grow 3 to 4 percent annually, while revenue for schools rises only about 2 percent, according to a report presented by officials. Weighing over their heads: Next year, BPS is projected to have a $20 to $25 million budget gap, assuming no steps are taken. If Question 2 passes and the charter cap is lifted, that deficit will be even greater, officials say.

Report authors sought to illuminate BPS’s main expenditure areas and offered possible changes. They addressed transportation, educator and other staff salaries and benefits, number of facilities and classrooms, special need student services and limits to city revenue generation. In the unlikely event that all proposals are taken up, officials estimate the city could save $100 million.

One caveat: The cost-savings ideas reflect only that some practices carry high pricetags — not that they fail to meet educational goals.

Comparisons to 12 districts across the U.S. with similar size, poverty level and student mix to Boston found that BPS is a relatively high spender. Even acknowledging higher cost of living it spends 45 percent more per pupil, according to the report. However, BPS also produces many positive results, noted Eleanor Laurans, the school department’s chief financial officer.

“We don’t necessarily think spending more in certain areas is overspending,” Laurans said. “BPS does do well compared to other urban centers on National Assessment of Educational Progress.”

Laurans emphasized that the ideas should be taken as ways to assess how money is spent so that the district is making conscious choices about where it prioritizes its dollars.

“We wanted to point out costs associated with some of the choices we’ve made as a district so we can have conversation of if we want to continue with those investments,” she said.

Public feedback will be solicited, with a presentation to the school committee on ideas, responses and, potentially, some recommendations intended for February 1. No specific level of public feedback is required.

Transportation

About 11 percent of BPS’ budget is spent on transporting children to school, and costs are expected to rise 7.5 percent annually. Part of the expense comes from serving children from a wide geographic range. BPS shoulders transit costs for private, charter and some parochial schools, all which may have citywide enrollment.

Furthermore, when BPS switched to a home-based system, it allowed children to remain in their current schools instead of transfer into ones closer to where they live. One proposal suggests eliminating transportation for children who elect to attend these more distant schools or putting a cap on how far BPS is willing to fund travel.

Other factors noted: Drivers are paid above the national average, and school start times are not aligned so as to allow one bus to serve multiple schools on time, thus requiring a larger vehicular fleet. Proposals include assigning start times with an eye to bus routing, considering alternate transit for more distantly-located children, and no longer providing a higher level of transit service than required under state law, which only stipulates serving K-6 students who live two or more miles from their school.

Facilities and programs

Another cost area: A prevalence of small schools. On average, BPS enrolls 420 children per primary school, while comparison districts enroll 562 on average.

Although some parents say their children thrive in these smaller environments and with more individualized attention, fewer, larger schools could more maximally utilize resources, BPS’s report states. Each facility brings certain costs, such as staffing a principal, and having somewhat larger schools might extend the benefit of that expenditure over a greater population. A similar concern was classrooms with seats unintentionally left empty, suggesting that in these cases, the benefit of teachers and programming is felt by fewer students. The report recommended reconsidering the number of schools, classrooms and program sites in the interest of concentrating resources in fewer locations.

At a school committee hearing last month, Gabi Pereire, a junior at Excel High School, warned against increasing class sizes too much. Pereire said that current funding shortfalls resulted in her AP Language Arts becoming overcrowded with 40 students each.

“I don’t know how I’m expected to learn or hear myself think,” Pereire said. “There are teachers who are unable to teach because they are so overwhelmed by lack of resources and so many students.”

Any steps here should follow research into student demand, facility capacity and equity by neighborhood, the report advises.

Teacher compensation

Salaries and benefits constitute 75 percent of BPS’s budget. Officials are interested in adding 40 extra minutes to the school day, a measure heralded as producing positive educational outcomes, which they note would come at the cost of paying teachers an additional five percent of their annual salary. Officials say this compensation is high compared to other districts, but add that they are not necessarily advocating cutting or freezing wages.

The city’s early hiring initiative has allowed it to recruit high-quality, diverse educators, officials say. But this may fill so many teaching positions that some tenured teachers are left without placement. State law required that positions for tenured educators are guaranteed, so the city provides them with support roles — costing about $10 to $15 million, in a budget that this year was $1.013 billion.

Among the report’s suggestions: advocate to the state for a change in tenure laws and reduce the rate of salary growth increases.

BPS and the Boston Teachers’ Union currently are in discussion regarding a three-year contract.

SPED and ELL

Boston serves an especially high number of special education students, which may reflect overlooked needs in other districts. Twenty percent of BPS students receive some level of special education service, compared, on average, to 17 percent statewide and 13 percent nationally.

With special education spending making up more than 33 percent of the FY 2016 budget, according to the report, reforming how the state provides funding could be impactful. The state funding formula presumes BPS has one-fifth of the number of SPED students it actually enrolls, and underestimates the costs to educate, officials said. Further aggravating shortfalls: When the state underestimates, BPS has to spend more to meet its high level of higher-need students; the state then requires BPS to provide similar funding for charter school’s special education students, who tend to have needs that are less costly to address, officials said.

Other report suggestions included a shift to address earlier on what could evolve into special educational needs down the road. This might entail providing targeted, flexible supports to more students, instead of either providing a complete individualized education plan or none at all, the report states.

Revenue

The state regards Boston’s high property values and income as an indicator that the city has wealth and needs less state support to fund its education. However, because Boston does not have authority to implement an income or sales tax and with Proposition 2.5 limiting property tax, the city has limited ability to tap this wealth for schools. Report authors recommended advocating measures to the state that allow Boston more revenue-generating tools.