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Boston city officials unveil new school budget plan

New action on homeless, learning time

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Boston city officials unveil new school budget plan
Eleanor Laurans, BPS chief financial officer, outlined the city’s school budget proposal at a meeting with reporters. With her is Colin Rose, BPS assistant superintendent of opportunity and achievement gaps.

Memories of the outrage over last year’s Boston school budget, which spurred thousands of high schoolers to walk out in protest, are still fresh. Now, the next school budget proposal is due.

Boston Public School officials sat down with reporters on Monday to outline their plan.

The overall school budget, by their estimate, represents a 2.8 percent increase over the previous year, with investments targeted at aiding homeless students, expanding more rigorous coursework to fifth-graders at 13 schools and providing for extended learning time. If the city factors in $20 million reserved for pay increases or other results of ongoing collective bargaining with the teacher’s union, that could bump to a 3.7 percent increase. The inflation rate for the year ending in Dec. 2016 is 2.1 percent, according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator, making the proposed school funding in effect closer to a 0.7 percent to 1.6 percent increase.

Balancing a budget

Some schools will receive less funding than they had this year. According to The Boston Globe, budgets will decrease at about twenty-five percent of schools, due to reduced enrollments.

Eleanor Laurans, BPS chief financial officer, said staff trimming at some schools is more likely due to those schools adjusting to declining enrollments rather than insufficient funding from the city.

“Our hope is we’ve set up our funding system so it never falls short of what a school needs,” Laurans said. “Having said that, transitions are hard for schools. Some schools are transitioning to get smaller. It’s not an easy process.”

BPS overall student body size is generally consistent with the previous year, but some particular grades are hit with smaller enrollments. Middle school pupil counts are declining and one high school grade is historically small, officials said. Additionally, certain programs, such as Sheltered English Immersion, are under-enrolled in particular grades.

Chapter 70 aid from the state remains nearly flat, growing by less than 1 percent per year, and unmet charter school reimbursements continue to cost the city millions, officials said.

“A school will always have what it needs in terms of teachers or teacher and aides, if that’s what class requires,” said Mary Driscoll, BPS principal leader. “But some discretionary dollars disappear with under-enrollment.”

In such cases, a school may receive enough to cover base necessities but not have little to support flexibility or enact new initiatives and improvements. However, BPS officials discussed allocation of newly enrolling students with geographically nearby schools in order to try to distribute them in a way that reduces the number of under-enrolled classes at either facility, Driscoll said.

Laurans said BPS has improved its method for estimating school enrollments and thus its ability to budget accurately.

Homeless initiative

With the district identifying nearly 3,000 homeless BPS students, the city is directing $1 million to their aid. The funding is allotted by adding a new homelessness weighting into the budget calculations.

BPS will establish school-site liaisons who can use these dollars flexibly and tailor efforts to the context and needs of their student body. This could include efforts such as establishing a clothing closet, food pantry or supply of hygiene items or providing a stipend to an existing staff member to give direct support to a homeless student and their family, said Brian Marques, BPS director of Opportunity Youth.

The Opportunity Youth Department and Homeless Education Resource Network will work with liaisons to offer guidance and training sessions. HERN also will connect students in need with external resources such as transportation, tutoring, mentoring, social service organizations and enrichment programming.

“We’re making a commitment to one of the most vulnerable populations,” added Amalio Nieves, BPS assistant superintendent of socioemotional learning and wellness. “If we can boost the resources we can provide, we’re providing safe, healthy environments for these students that’ll translate into greater attendance which then ultimately leads to greater academic achievement.”

Extended learning time

Citing research studies that tie extra classroom time to better academic outcomes, Laurans announced plans to invest $14.1 million in extended learning time. Some parents have raised concern that the longer days and later end times could result in students being let out at the height of traffic congestion.

Laurans said that the benefit outweighs the transit headache and that shifting school times to start earlier would be prohibitively expensive. Moving a school from 9:30 a.m. start time to an 8:30 a.m. start time costs about $80,000 per altered bus route. This adds up to about $1 million for an average-sized school, she said. Any schedule shifts to compensate for ELT would not come before the 2018-2019 school year, Laurans said.

Excellence For All

The city proposes investing an additional $715,000 into its Excellence For All program, which provides rigorous coursework to fourth-grade students at 13 schools. With the new investment, the program also would be rolled out to fifth-graders at those schools. While modeled after the Advanced Work Course program, Excellence For All reaches a more diverse demographic.

Timeline

The city’s school budget proposal was slated to be presented before the Boston School Committee on Wednesday night, Feb. 1. It will take about five months before a final budget is established, said David Sweeney, the city’s chief financial officer.

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