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How Brockton’s budget woes began

Deficits led to teacher shortage, loss of learning

Peter Roby

Brockton, citing financial hardship over the last year, has left more than a thousand public school students without teachers for one or more periods a day. These students are overwhelmingly Black and brown.

The city’s fiscal limits should have come as no surprise to its financial experts, who had engineered a $300 million investment in retiree pensions in the 2022 budget year.

Pursuing what were expected to be long-term savings, the city made an investment that represented an aggressive prepayment of obligations that aren’t due until 2040. By paying up early, Brockton put itself on the hook for a decade of debt service payments on bonds and exposed taxpayers to investment risks. Initially, Brockton did reap a $22 million windfall surplus for budget year 2022.

Brockton’s latest city budget justified the move as preferable to a funding schedule from the Brockton Retirement Board. Its plan would have amounted to “crippling the city’s ability to adequately fund other primary obligations, including public safety and education,” the budget warns.

The city’s public school funding this year is tight nonetheless. The Banner reported Oct. 4 that hundreds of high school students had one or more class periods without a teacher daily. In the district, 169 positions were open at the time. Since then, some new teachers have been hired.

Speaking to Brockton High School students in early October, the Banner learned that approximately 100 students typically occupied each of the school’s four cafeterias throughout the six periods a day. The students asked not to be identified to speak candidly about their teachers and peers. They described the differing motivations of everyone at the school.

“There’re some teachers who don’t know how to speak and teach. And then there are others that are like — because of what’s happening in the district, they could be like laid off or something — it’s like, they could be under stress,” said one Black junior.

A Hispanic senior said of teachers, “You get some who are very dedicated, and you can tell, like ‘I became a teacher because I love children.’” For others, “you can tell this is just a paycheck, and ‘I’m just here to work my hours and then leave.’”

Another junior focused on student behavior, “I feel like it’s the students. I feel like there’s a lot of behavior and I don’t think it’s dealt with properly.”

“My two automotive periods — I haven’t had that class all year,” the same junior said. “Like, it’s on my schedule, but I just sit in the cafeteria for [two periods] because there’s no teacher.”

Many of Brockton’s teaching positions have been belatedly filled after budget deficits in the last two years led to an exodus of experienced educators.

At an Oct. 17 meeting of the Brockton School Committee, Superintendent James Cobbs recounted that “at our last executive session, we looked at close to 100 positions that hadn’t been filled.”

Confronted with the urgency of hiring teachers at that October meeting, city CFO Troy Clarkson insisted on methodically analyzing whether faculty and staff positions were actually funded in the School Committee’s budget from May.

“I’m drawing a distinction between an approved budget and a position control process, which is very common in school districts and municipalities throughout the Commonwealth, to ensure that the funds that you approved are in fact being spent on the positions that are approved in the budget,” Clarkson said.

In early November, Cobbs identified 29 open teaching positions in the district. He said between two newly hired auto-mechanic teachers and two long-term subs, there would be consistent coverage for four more classrooms.

At Brockton High, staffing shortages have raised safety issues. Fights have broken out in school cafeterias that a single teacher was supervising. After one such incident, the new interim principal, Jose Duarte ended school early the next day and initiated student assemblies where behavior expectations were set.

In an October 27 update to the Brockton High community, Duarte announced plans to “hire security specialists who will monitor our exterior doors, hallways and bathrooms.”

“We’re going to add more cameras,” Cobbs, the superintendent, reassured a concerned School Committee member on November 2. “We have a capacity of 500 more cameras that we can add.”

As a veteran educator of Boston and Brockton, Duarte is stepping into challenges with broad support. Cobbs described him as a “man of integrity, a man of hard work and dedication.” Both served in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Hired as principal for a few months, Duarte said his top priority is to “address the staffing shortages.” He continued, “We can begin to do certain moves with the staff to collapse certain classes, do whatever else we need to do to make sure that all the kids have a teacher.”

He expressed confidence in the school’s faculty, saying, “There is an incredibly hardworking and competent and dedicated and caring staff that works here with students.” He said he’s setting one-on-one meetings with students and teachers to address issues directly.

When Brockton saved $22 million in budget year 2022, the city filed paperwork with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that appears not to reflect those savings. The state compliance report lists a higher total for teacher retirement contributions than that entire line item’s actual spending in the city budget. Without the higher retirement contribution amount, Brockton could have failed to meet its net school spending minimum that year.

For Brockton’s investment — called Pension Obligation Bonds — to pay off, the $300 million raised would need to grow 6.75% annually every year through 2032. But within months the retirement board was reporting a $100 million loss on the year. It’s now back in the black.

Brockton’s taxpayers are responsible for retirees’ pensions even if the investment sours. To mitigate risk, Brockton set aside $20 million in a pension stabilization fund, which it may eventually double.

Regardless, Brockton will make debt service payments for a decade. Starting at $12.8 million in 2023, these payments jumped 19% to $15.3 million this budget year. In the 2029 budget year, they’ll spike to $35 million. State law allows some of these debt service payments to count towards Brockton’s minimum school spending.

Outside of school, residents are organizing under the auspices of the Brockton Coalition for Education Justice.

A retired Boston Public Schools teacher, Jewell Royster Bratton, in October attended her first gathering of the group looking for answers about reported budget deficits.

“My mother and I are raising my niece and we’re back in Brockton to do this,” she said, contrasting Brockton’s public schools with Kingston’s. “It’s upsetting a lot of times.”

Royster Bratton said Brockton families have aspirations for their children’s futures that depend on educational opportunities. She worried some of Brockton’s teachers are quickly overwhelmed, saying, “Really, they’re defeated before they even get started.”

At the group’s October gathering, she found residents collaborating to create action plans. A research team is starting with basic questions about city spending and the state’s education funding formula.

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