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The Boston Globe

Metro

Middle-schoolers to ride MBTA under new city budget

Mayor Martin J. Walsh overcame opposition Wednesday and narrowly passed his first budget, winning a slim majority in the City Council despite objections to a cost-cutting measure that will send seventh- and eighth-graders to school on MBTA buses and subways.

The City Council unanimously approved the operating budget for police, fire, and other municipal departments. But it voted, 7 to 6, to pass the school budget after several councilors raised safety concerns about 12- and 13-year-olds traveling to class by bus and subway.

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Boston public school students are 84 percent black, Hispanic, or Asian, and all four city councilors of color voted against the school budget. The councilors — Tito Jackson, Ayanna Pressley, Michelle Wu, and Charles Yancey — were joined in opposition by councilors Matthew O’Malley and Josh Zakim.

The councilors who approved the school budget were Frank Baker, Mark Ciommo, Michael Flaherty, Salvatore LaMattina, Bill Linehan, Timothy McCarthy, and Stephen Murphy.

The spending package totaled $2.7 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The budget will require over 100 layoffs in the School Department and a limited number of job cuts in other city departments, Walsh said. The council authorized $287 million in new spending on capital projects.

Before the vote, Jackson, chairman of the council’s education committee, urged his colleagues to reject the school budget. In some parts of the city, Jackson said, the number of street gangs has grown exponentially in recent years.

“We live in a city where in some neighborhoods it is fine and easy and not dangerous to walk down the street,” Jackson said. “But we also live in a city that in some neighborhoods many young people . . . have to think about their safety.”

But Murphy recalled his own commute to school as a middle school student, at a time when he said there was significantly more crime in Boston. When he was 12, Murphy said, his trip to school included MBTA buses and a trolley.

“I think that was something good that forced me to grow up,” Murphy said. “I don’t think any of us can say that it’s safer to be on a yellow bus than it is safer to be on the MBTA.”

The elimination of yellow school buses for seventh- and eighth-graders will affect about 4,500 students and will save the city $8 million, according to the Walsh administration.

Other councilors questioned whether the move would save $8 million, suggested funding could be found elsewhere, and criticized the process, which they described as a major policy shift with little warning.

“Many parents don’t know this is happening,” O’Malley said. “This policy proposal was rolled out after many parents selected middle schools for their children.”

A coalition of civil rights and education groups released a statement strongly opposing the plan.

“Our city’s budget should reflect our values, and we should value nothing more than the safety, well-being, and education of our young people,” said Michael Curry, president of the Boston Branch of the NAACP.

Walsh said he was happy the budget passed but disappointed that the vote was so close. He promised to revisit the issue and said changes could be made before September.

“People have a real good reason to be upset,” Walsh said. “I don’t think the School Department did a good job of rolling it out. . . . But we’re going to correct that and talk to parents from now until the school year starts.”

But Walsh also defended the initiative, saying at least 10 cities the same size as Boston or larger use public transportation for middle school students. He said students will receive a seven-day T pass, an increase from the current five-day passes.

“It not really the savings here; we’re looking to make a [policy] shift,” Walsh said. But he acknowledged, “The concern around public safety is certainly legit for parents. We’re going to work with the MBTA.”

Walsh said budget highlights included funding to continue renovation of the Central Library in Copley Square, infrastructure improvements in parks, and $400,000 to determine whether municipal workers could be moved from City Hall while it is renovated.

“It’s a fiscally conservative budget, and we have very little dependency on the rainy day fund,” Walsh said. “We’re making sure we continue good fiscal stability in the City of Boston.”

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.
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