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Boston Public School officials, Committee debate school funding, cuts

Cuts spur conversation on weighted school funding

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Boston Public School officials, Committee debate school funding, cuts
BPS Managing Director and Senior Advisor of External Affairs Makeeba McCreary speaks while Chief Financial Officer Eleanor Laurans and Budget Director David Bloom look on at the Lila Frederick school.

While Boston Public School officials touted a $29 million increase in school funding for 2018, School Committee members last week had pointed questions about how 49 schools are receiving cuts of up to $1 million while other schools are slated to receive increases in funding.

Those concerns boiled over during a public hearing at the Lilla G. Frederick School in Dorchester, where deep budget cuts at low-performing schools and the school department’s weighted student funding system came under scrutiny.

“Does weighted student funding actually work?” asked School Committee member Jeri Robinson. “Does it give enough dollars to do what we need it to do with Level 4 schools?”

John W. McCormack Middle School teacher Meliza Prieto speaks during a budget hearing held at English High School in Jamaica Plain.

Brighton High School, a Level 4 school – at risk of state takeover – is due to receive a cut of $1,007,459 in the proposed fiscal year 2018 budget. The Jackson/Mann K-8 school, a Level 3 school, is dealt a cut of $1,006,769. Those schools are at the top of a list that also includes cuts of $751,748 at the Level 4 Dever School and $190,769 at Boston Latin Academy.

Under the student weighted funding system, funds are allocated to schools in accordance with the number of students enrolled. If students leave a school, the funds walk with them. School Committee Chairman Michael O’Neill noted that the weighted student funding formula was put in place to create greater equity in a school budgeting system that previously allocated monies based in part on political connections.

“The number one thing weighted student funding does not do is it doesn’t allow the district to play favorites,” he said.

O’Neill said funding schools by the number of students has shifted debate away from whether individual schools are getting their fair share and toward concerns about whether populations like English language learners and students with disabilities are funded at appropriate levels.

“I think it has allowed us to be much fairer and more transparent,” he added.

Equity vs. quality

Further debate is expected at the Wednesday, March 15 budget hearing at Roxbury’s Bolling Building.

During the Dorchester meeting, BPS Chief Financial Officer Eleanor Laurans argued that the weighted funding system helps give parents greater choice in which schools their children attend.

“The consequence of having that value is that we believe in choice. We believe in innovation,” she said. “It means that in some places we have growth, in others we have schools that are shrinking.”

Robinson’s question of whether struggling Level 4 schools are well-served by million-dollar budget cuts has come to the fore in this year’s school budget process. The cuts to Level 4 schools come in stark contrast to previous turnaround efforts, such as at the much-lauded Orchard Gardens K-8 school, which received an extra $1.3 million a year as it pulled out of Level 4 status.

Robinson urged the committee and school officials to discuss the budget itself, rather than the funding formula.

“Equity isn’t giving us quality,” she said. “We don’t have enough money in the pot.”

The $29 million increase will be added to school budgets, with $14 million slated to fund 40 minutes of extended learning time at 39 schools. Other new items in the budget include $1.1 million for services for homeless students; $2 million for the Excellence for All program, which helps prepare students for entrance to exam schools; $1.3 million for expansion of vocational education; and $600 million to set up infrastructure for universal pre-kindergarten in Boston.

The more than $18 million spent on new programs doesn’t leave enough for the department to increase funding for all BPS schools, argued Jackson.

“It’s not about how you allocate it,” Jackson said during the hearing. “It’s what you actually have to allocate. Again, this budget is a dereliction of duty by the mayor of Boston. He is not funding the schools at the level that they should be funded and not valuing our young people.”

School department spokesman Richard Weir disputed the notion that school funding is decreasing, and said the funding for new programs should be added into calculations of school budgets.

“When taking into account total spending at schools, we currently project funding directed to schools to increase at 96 schools even with flat overall district enrollment,” he said in a statement emailed to the Banner. “This includes additional funding for lengthening the school day at 39 schools, new homeless resources, weighted student funding allocations, a projected allotment from the collective bargaining reserve, and other supports added to schools after WSF, and other new investments.”

Jackson, who is challenging Mayor Martin Walsh in the 2017 municipal election, questioned the city’s support for General Electric’s new Fort Point Channel headquarters. His critique echoed themes student activists sounded last year when the BPS proposed a $13.5 million, 1.3 percent, increase to the school budget while other city departments saw 3 percent increases. After a picket line at the 2016 State of the City address and three student walk-outs, Walsh announced an additional $6 million increase to the budget.

Jackson urged the school committee to reject this year’s budget, which they are scheduled to vote on March 22.

“This budget before you is anemic,” he said. “This is the richest time in the city of Boston and we should be investing in our public schools and not shortchanging our young people and shortchanging the future of the city of Boston.”

Complaints aired at Monday meeting

During a Monday School Committee meeting at English High School in Jamaica Plain, students, parents and school staff spoke out against cuts at BPS schools.

“As if being a Level 4 school isn’t enough, my school is facing a million dollars in budget cuts,” said Brighton High School student Hibo Moallim. “I find it ironic that more money is going to the Opportunity and Achievement Gap Office,” she added, suggesting that the money would be better spent improving academic outcomes at Level 4 schools.

BPS parent Kristin Johnson cited a 12-fold increase in fundraising at BPS schools on the Donors Choose website between 2012 and 2016. Teachers seeking classroom supplies received $40,000 in fiscal year 2012 and $500,000 in fiscal year 2016.

But teachers in high income neighborhoods like Back Bay and the South End were more likely to receive supplies. At the Quincy School in Chinatown, teachers received $93,000. At the Tobin School in Mission Hill, they received nothing.

Johnson, who referred to the funding inequities as a “philanthropic Hunger Games,” questioned why schools should have to rely heavily on donations for basic supplies like paper and pencils.

“When we rely so heavily on crowd-sourced funding, there’s no way to ensure equity,” she said.

Annie Spitz, a parent at Boston Latin Academy, questioned why the exam school is projected to lose 38 students – and $190,000 – despite having students on a waiting list to get in. She noted that her daughter is using a 24-year-old textbook.

Joel Thompson, a parent of a Boston Teachers Union Pilot School student, decried what he characterized as a “normalization” of budget cuts.

“We’ve got to find a way out of this annual churn from weighted school funding,” he said.