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BPS budget falls short of promise of quality education for all

Ruby Reyes

Every Boston school should offer its students a high-quality education, but the proposed school budget falls far short of that standard. While this budget is better than it has been in previous years, it still subscribes to a model of school funding that at its core doesn’t believe all schools deserve the same opportunities and resources. BPS has done better at providing support for soft landing funds for schools with declining enrollment and more investments in helping homeless students. However, the city needs to find revenue to make sure every school has what it needs to thrive rather than survive.

Unfortunately, the budget is not designed to do that. While the district celebrates more students attending so-called level 1 and 2 schools next year, we are most concerned with our schools that have been struggling after years of cuts and disinvestment. We’re concerned with all schools ‘winning’ in this budget. There are 15 schools seeing deep budget cuts, while another 18 will be forced to cut staff, as modest increases to their budgets did not keep up with costs — effectively level-funding them. That is more than a quarter of schools in this budget that have fallen into the cycle of disinvestment. The district must answer the fundamental question: What do all students deserve? Do our high school students deserve to learn the value of research with a trained librarian? Do our students deserve to have unleaded water fountains? Do our students deserve to have guidance counselors and school psychologists that can help support and guide them through some of the most difficult years of adolescence? We at the Boston Education Justice Alliance (BEJA) say yes, and we need to fund it.

The budget only guarantees each school enough money for a principal and clerical help. Beyond that, schools must compete for students to win the funds they need for art teachers and even textbooks. If a student goes to a school that is undersubscribed, that student loses out. If one school has an increase in its budget, it is at the cost of another school’s budget. There is no guarantee of a quality education at every school.

The competition for students has become heavily influenced by test scores, which mostly reflect the incomes and English language skills of their families, not the quality of instruction. The result is that schools in the richer, whiter parts of town expand, while those in neighborhoods of color shrink and close. The analysis provided by the budget office this year shows that a much higher proportion of black students must ride buses to get to school. That’s because their schools are farther away. How is that equitable?

BEJA calls on the School Committee to change the policy to one that is really about excellence for all. The budget process should not be about divvying up the shrinking pie that the mayor is offering. What’s more is that some school site councils do not receive itemized school budgets to create further lack of transparency for parents, such as with Madison Park. Boston is a wealthy city in a wealthy state. We can afford excellent schools.

We are chronically told that difficult decisions need to be made, pinning our children’s education on the expansion and growth of developers and institutions. Ultra-wealthy “nonprofit” institutions including universities like Harvard and Northeastern and hospitals like Mass. General, are exempt from taxes, even though they benefit from their location in Boston like everyone else. What’s more, there has been little limit to their expansion, cutting the city off from property taxes that are a lifeline for public education while driving up rental costs that push residents out of the city. This directly impacts enrollment into the Boston Public Schools. More and more families are unable to remain in the city because of unaffordable rents – and low and middle income families are most harshly impacted.

BEJA calls for the city to no longer approve expansion plans that give away more property tax revenue without full payment and written commitment from these institutions in our city. The city must create a process to ensure institutions submit community benefits that are aligned to the needs of Bostonians, including the BPS not simply the institutions’ priorities. Homeowners, no matter how strapped, pay property taxes. Non-profit institutions, no matter how flush, do not.

In 2012, the City implemented a new Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program that currently asks our largest and wealthiest nonprofit organizations that occupy real estate of over $15 million in property value to contribute 25% of what they would otherwise pay in real estate taxes to the city. Under the current guidelines, up to half of that contribution can be written off for providing community benefits to residents of Boston. The other half is requested as a cash contribution. BEJA calls for the investment of additional revenue from PILOT payments into the expansion of Hub or Community Schools that provide full wraparound services, such as access to medical care, counseling, housing assistance and more. We’ve started a petition at bit.ly/fundourschoolsboston to raise awareness and make clear our demands for a better PILOT program that invests in Hub Community Schools with wraparound services. We are a rich city, with some of the most renowned healthcare and higher education institutions in the world. And yet, as the recent Globe series on racism exposed, our students and families are not benefitting from them in enrollment or care. In terms of city property values, it is the “Big 4” universities (BC, BU, Harvard and Northeastern) that are unfortunately one of the driving forces among “overdue” balances, with a combined $36 million left unpaid since 2012.

BEJA also calls upon the state to give Boston what it is due in state aid and charter reimbursements. The Governor’s FY19 budget also follows a similar pattern of level funding but for charter school reimbursements, which in turn does not fully fund charter expansion. This process leaves Boston with an amounted shortfall of over $100 million. The Massachusetts House and Senate need to also consider an equitable funding for Boston.

Boston must be a city where all of our students can grow and thrive in a joyful, safe and engaging learning environment. We must commit to fully funding Boston Public Schools. To accomplish this, all of Boston’s businesses and neighbors must contribute.