Mayor Martin J. Walsh is facing an early test of his leadership as he orders city agencies to propose spending cuts amid an expected drop in federal funding and a spike in costs driven partly by pay raises and a police arbitration settlement.
Departments have been asked to submit initial proposals by the end of the month. Walsh must file a spending plan — expected to reach $2.7 billion — by April 9 with the City Council.
The administration Wednesday night declined to specify how much it told agencies to trim. Samuel R. Tyler, longtime president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said larger city agencies such as the police and fire departments have been told to cut 1 percent. City officials who were not authorized to discuss the budget publicly confirmed that figure.
“It’s manageable, but it’s going to mean there are cutbacks,” said Tyler, whose organization is a fiscal watchdog funded by business and nonprofits. “The challenge is for a new mayor with new initiatives that he’s campaigned on and would like to begin to implement. It’s going to make it more difficult.”
As the new administration wrestles with its first budget, city officials cautioned that it was too soon to gauge the impact of any potential reductions.
‘Parents are freaking out. Some schools are told a $150,000 cut, others are told upward of $500,000.’KAREN KAST-McBRIDE, education advocate, parent
The Walsh administration must contend with a police arbitration award that will cost an estimated $20 million more in the coming year than the city had anticipated, Tyler said. The award, which the City Council approved in December, had been opposed by former mayor Thomas M. Menino. Before taking office, Walsh said the police raises were too high, but he stopped short of calling on the council to reject the award.
The budget crunch is a stark reminder for Walsh that he is no longer a candidate making promises on the stump. Now he must confront the realities of governing.
“The mayor will present a balanced budget to the City Council that advances his priorities and continues to serve our residents,” Walsh spokeswoman Emilee Ellison said. “We’re in the earliest stage of a months-long budget process. Over the next three months, the mayor will work with every city department to implement new ideas that will drive efficiencies.”
During the campaign, Walsh proposed gradually expanding the number of kindergarten seats so all 4-year-olds could attend school. Tyler said he supported the proposal, but given the budget, the expansion “may have to slow down.”
The prospect of cuts has alarmed parents of public school students. Individual schools have already outlined potential staff reductions. The School Department is expected to receive almost 4 percent more from the city next year, but that is not expected to offset a steep drop in federal grants and increased costs because of raises, health insurance, and other expenses.
The school budget process began before Walsh took office because the School Committee must approve an education budget before it is sent to the City Council.
In December, education officials gave each school a funding estimate based on the number of students expected to enroll. Working with that estimate, schools proposed their own budgets to the superintendent’s office. The process, which includes staff and parents, offered an early glimpse of potential reductions.
“Parents are freaking out,” said Karen Kast-McBride, a parent from Roslindale and education advocate who sits on a board that advises several schools. “Some schools are told a $150,000 cut, others are told upward of $500,000.”
Proposed cuts have become an annual rite because of the drop in federal funding, Kast-McBride said, and she urged parents to mobilize as the School Department begins budget hearings.
The Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain is facing a proposed $500,000 cut that would eliminate 14 positions, including slots for teaching journalism and music; positions for teaching kindergarten students with limited English skills would also be imperiled, according to a staff member who was not authorized to speak about the budget.
Interim School Superintendent John McDonough said in an interview Wednesday the School Department faces about $60 million in increased costs because of raises, health insurance, and other expenses. Next year, the schools will lose roughly $31 million in outside grants, driven largely by the end of President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.
Boston uses a weighted student funding formula, McDonough said, which means money is allocated to students and not school buildings. From year to year, the appropriation to a particular school will rise and fall with the number of students. That is a good thing, McDonough said, because it allocates money where resources are needed most.
The School Department is anticipating a $36 million increase in its appropriation from the city. In the current budget, the department was allotted more than $937 million, which represented more than one-third of Boston’s total budget. McDonough offered one last caveat as the budget process kicked off in earnest.
“There is a tendency to think that if there are budget reductions that schools are bearing the burden,” he said. “I have directed our central support department to prepare for major reductions and a reorganization in order to help us ensure and maximize the flexibility that we need to preserve in our schools.”