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As BPS schools brace for cuts, funding system under scrutiny

Weighted student funding puts some schools in a 'downward spiral'

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
As BPS schools brace for cuts, funding system under scrutiny
Superintendent Tommy Chang and Mayor Martin Walsh visit the Mario Umana Academy.

With early indications that schools will be receiving cuts for the third consecutive year, parent groups are gearing up for what may be a series of contentious School Committee and City Council meetings and many are questioning whether the way Boston schools are funded makes sense.

“We’re in a vicious cycle which ends up hurting harming those most in need,” said Barbara Fields, who sits on the executive committee of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts. “We can’t profess that we’re focusing on children and closing the achievement gap and not provide the resources needed for quality education for our children.”

BPS officials have not publicly released the budget, but parents who have attended school site council meetings say cuts in the 2019 budget will include the Irving middle school and Bates elementary in Roslindale, the Kilmer and Lyndon elementary schools in West Roxbury, the Mather elementary school in Dorchester and Winship elementary in Brighton, which is reportedly due to receive a $500,000 cut.

As a result, in the previous two years, schools have lost teachers and support staff, cut programs including SAT prep and AP classes, cut hours for nurses and shuttered libraries. In 2016, the budget battle led to protests, including two student walkouts. Last year, the Boston School Committee anguished over cuts to 48 schools including several with Level IV status, one step away from state takeover.

Successive years of cuts have lowered parents’ expectations, forcing them to scale back plans to expand programs at schools, says Lucas Orwig, a parent who has a child at the Hernandez school and is a member of the Citywide Parent Council.

“We’re not even able to maintain what we have, let along make things better,” he said.

In reaction to the early reports, parents with the Start Smart BPS group have launched an online petition calling on the Walsh administration to restore $33 million in funding they say should have gone into BPS classrooms had the Walsh administration increased school spending at 3 percent a year — an increase that would allow school budgets to keep pace with inflation and the city’s growing tax base.


The money follows the student

Boston uses a so-called weighted student funding formula that assigns each school a set dollar amount for each student, that factors in grade level, disability and language needs. Schools that educate a higher number of English language learners, for example, receive more funding that schools that have none. In devising its weighted student funding system, BPS partnered with Education Resource Strategies, a Watertown-based education reform group whose funders include the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation.

Prior to implementation of the weighted student funding formula, Boston schools were allocated staff by the central office. If a school lacked a librarian, the responsibility for that deficit was with the school department. Under the current system, a school’s funding is tied to its enrollment numbers. When a school loses students, either because parents don’t select it or, in some cases, because the district has taken away its feeder schools, principals are faced with the decision of whether to cut teaching staff or support staff, such as librarians and nurses.

The cuts doled out to schools under the system prompted School Committee members to question the utility of the weighted student funding system. In a Nov. 15 meeting, School Committee member Jeri Robinson pressed Superintendent Tommy Chang on whether BPS should allocate a baseline of funding for programs and positions such as nurses, libraries, arts and special education.

“We still know across our buildings and programs there are haves and have-nots on the basics,” Robinson said. (View the conversation here at 3:59:25)

“I’ve heard this theme come up from various sources … Is there that basic foundation that all schools need? We have yet to come up with a good way to have that conversation,” Chang responded to Robinson. “I have heard this from you and others repeatedly. We will need to figure out how to have this conversation. Does every single school deserve a nurse? Does every single school deserve a principal? Does every single classroom need one teacher?”

Yet, as Alain Jehlen, publisher of the Boston School Yard News, notes in a Jan. 17 article, BPS officials are rolling out the 2019 budget without that conversation having taken place.

In an interview with the Banner last week, Mayor Martin Walsh said the current student-weighted funding system works well, despite the loss of funding at certain schools.

“They lose money because the money follows the student,” he said. “On the flip side of that, schools that have additional enrollment get more money. That system has been in place for several years now. If a private school has fewer students, they have less of a budget. Unfortunately, that’s how it works.”

When asked whether schools should run without working libraries or full-time nurses, Walsh said those decisions are made by principals.

“Those are decision made through the autonomy given to the schools,” he said.

Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang said school budget cuts ought not force principals to make cuts to essential personnel and programs.

“Schools shouldn’t have to decide between a library and a nurse,” she said. “We need to figure out what we think all students deserve and how do we get them access to what they need to thrive.”

Downward spiral

In the absence of any consensus between parents, school leaders and the Walsh administration around what adequate school funding would look like, many schools have instead faced declining budgets and successive years of cuts. The student walkouts of 2016, Barbara Fields says, went unheeded.

“Our young people were begging the mayor to provide the budget their schools needed,” she said. “It didn’t happen. The students still lost out. Principals and headmasters are still robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Parents at many schools fear the successive waves of cuts will put their schools into a downward spiral.

“You lose funding, you make cuts, you lose quality, you lose students, you lose funding,” said Orwig, the Hernandez parent.

BPS officials point to what they say is an increase of students in Tier 1 schools, the highest-performing under the city’s school performance rubric. There are 600 more students this year in Tier 1 schools than last year, officials say.

Yet the schools that are losing funding and students often tend to be in neighborhoods with the greatest concentrations of students of color and the highest rates of poverty, or schools such as Brighton High, a school in “turnaround” status because of a Level 4 rating in the state’s rating system, which serves a high population of students who speak English as a second language.

Those schools need resources every bit as much as the schools with higher student performance, Jeri Robinson argues.

“I want every school to have everything it needs to be well-equipped,” she said. “That shouldn’t be based on the number of students.”