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Schools scrambling for funds amid boom times

Hub schools’ struggle mirrors state, national trends

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Schools scrambling for funds amid boom times
Mayor Martin Walsh and former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz deliver Red Sox hats to the kids at the Hurley School in the South End. Photo: Mayor’s Office photo by John Wilcox

When parents at the Phineas Bates Elementary School found out a popular staff member, Adam Prisby, was slated to have his position cut, they launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise the $30,000 they would need to keep him at the Roslindale school.

After nine days, 53 donors had contributed just $4,469 of the funds needed.

The Bates is just one of 44 Boston schools that have seen their budgets reduced from 2017 in what has become a yearly cycle of cuts.

The austerity being visited on individual school budgets stands in stark contrast to the city’s thriving economy. With unprecedented housing construction bringing in tens of millions of dollars in new revenues yearly, Boston is the state’s wealthiest city with a relatively rosy outlook for municipal finance. The fiscal year 2019 Boston Public Schools budget represents a 1.5 percent increase over spending last year. But Mayor Martin Walsh’s 2019 budget for the city is slated to grow by more than 4 percent.

A similar pattern is playing out at the state level. Governor Charlie Baker’s 2019 budget calls for a modest $103.6 million increase, or 2.2 percent, in the Chapter 70 aid the state provides to local school districts. This is despite a finding by the Legislature’s Foundation Budget Review Committee that the state is underfunding Chapter 70 by more than $1 billion. Neither Baker’s budget nor the House budget proposal, which would increase Chapter 70 by $124 million, come anywhere near close to closing that gap.

Twenty-five years after the passage of the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, Boston and cities and towns throughout the state are struggling with declining budgets and rising costs. The longstanding shortfall of Chapter 70 funding has prompted the cities of Brockton and Worcester to join forces; the two cities are preparing for a lawsuit challenging the state’s school funding formula, in a potential repeat of the McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education lawsuit that pushed the Legislature to pass the Education Reform Act in 1993.

National dimensions

Although Massachusetts consistently leads the nation in both per-pupil expenditures and measures of student performance including standardized tests, high school graduation rates and college completion rates, the current funding crises affecting Massachusetts cities and towns seems more in line with Republican-led “red” states, where longstanding funding shortfalls have pushed teachers to walk out.

Stagnant teacher pay and inadequate funding for classrooms have sparked teacher strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, with a walkout pending in Arizona. Teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma returned to their classrooms after legislators in those states agreed to modest hikes to their wages. But in neither state did lawmakers significantly increase classroom funding.

In many Republican-led states, historically low school funding shrank even more in the wake of the recession of 2008 and cuts to state income tax rate As of 2015, 29 states had lower student funding than they did in 2008, according to a report published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In Massachusetts, however, the history of school funding in the last 25 years has been more nuanced. School funding increased substantially in the wake of the Education Reform Act of 1993, particularly in predominantly low-income districts with limited tax bases. Cities such as Brockton, Lawrence and Springfield draw the majority of their education funding from the state. But adjusted for inflation, the Chapter 70 funds the state has distributed to schools have declined by 7 percent since 2001.

Chapter 70 aid, adjusted for inflation (courtesy Mass. Budget and Policy Ctr.)

The recession, coupled with a 1993 funding formula that didn’t take rising health care costs and the costs of educating low-income, high needs populations into account, has led to strained budgets, forcing painful cuts that many district leaders say put their schools at risk of failure.

“The higher-needs districts took a bigger hit,” said Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education who focuses on education finance. “Affluent communities were able to take up the slack.”

A growing gap in Boston

So where does that leave Boston? As a city, Boston is enjoying unprecedented wealth. But as a school district, Boston more closely resembles the state’s so-called gateway cities that are struggling with school finances: Half of Boston’s students are economically disadvantaged, 48 percent speak English as a second language and 20 percent have disabilities. The high representation of students in those three categories make the city’s student population more expensive to educate than the students of an average Massachusetts district.

In 2016, the same year students staged two walkouts and demonstrated at the mayor’s State of the City address to protest cuts the BPS schools, the city’s revenue grew by $114 million. For fiscal year 2019, revenue is projected to grow by $137 million.

The apparent contradiction between the city’s growing revenues and struggling schools remains an enigma. Mayor Walsh and School Superintendent Tommy Chang have not addressed the question, insisting that school budgets aren’t being cut. Both have repeatedly referred to BPS budgets as “the largest-ever,” a reference that doesn’t take into account inflation, an economic force that has affected school budgets since the Mather School, Boston’s oldest public school, opened its door in 1639.

Walsh has also noted that state aid to Boston’s schools, which in 2001 accounted for 30 percent of the BPS budget, now covers less than 10 percent of the budget. Much of that aid has been lost to charter schools, which as they expand claim a greater share of local district budgets. Further compounding the funding problem, the state has only level-funded the reimbursements it provides districts for charters, a move that has an average of $20 million a year over the last five years — nearly two percent of the district’s $1.1 billion budget.

But Barbara Fields, an executive committee member of the Black Educator’s Alliance of Massachusetts, says the city’s growing budget has more than enough funds to forestall cuts to schools. Police officers don’t hold bake sales or GoFundMe campaigns to purchase guns or equipment, she notes.

“Why aren’t we funding schools the same way we fund police,” she said. “What does it say about our values when we’re not supporting young people?”

Painful cuts

Much of the focus of Boston School Committee meetings earlier this year centered on cuts to school programming aligned with the district’s use of a new “opportunity index,” a system of allocating partnership funding — monies used for extracurricular activities and special programs. The new allocation system saw schools such as the Bates lose staff and paraprofessionals while other schools gained funding. Missing in much of the debate was the fact that the pie that parent councils and school leaders are fighting over is shrinking. Those partnership funds shrank from $13 million in the fiscal year 2014 budget to just $5.8 million for FY 19.

During hearings this year, parents, students and school staff decried the lack of funding for nurses and school psychologists, for extracurricular programming and even for basic supplies such as photocopiers and paper.

At the Bates school, a $117,000 budget cut was compounded by the loss of partnership funds. The GoFundMe campaign is just one method the parents are employing to keep Prisby on staff, along with grant applications and raffles.

The contrast between the Bates parents’ struggle for $30,000 and the city’s growing wealth wasn’t lost on Travis Marshall, the treasurer of the school’s parent council, who told the Schoolyard News blog the school is cutting back on lunch monitors and raiding the school supply budget to help close the funding gap.

“It’s shameful that teachers and families need to go to these lengths to give Boston students the education they deserve, in a city where development is booming and property values are rising, in the third-richest state in the country,” he said.

boston school budgets, boston school cuts, brockton schools, chapter 70 funding, foundation budget review committee, massachusetts school funding, phineas bates school, school funding lawsuit, teacher walk-outs, worcester schools
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