A newly launched commission will help Boston Public Schools allocate nearly $400 million in federal pandemic relief funds, coming in part from the American Rescue Plan.
The commission, announced by the district on April 27, is made up of more than two dozen education and community leaders, including Roxbury Community College president Valerie Roberson and Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang. It plans to host five virtual meetings between mid-May and early July to discuss “key focus areas for these new investments,” according to the district.
The American Rescue Plan, the coronavirus relief package signed into law by President Biden in March, provided billions of dollars to schools nationwide with broad flexibility for districts to determine how to use the funding. Money can be used for fixing school buildings, buying personal protective equipment for educators, or providing summer programs, among other things.
“With the additional investments from the City in our operating budget and capital investments, these new funds will bring critical resources directly into classrooms,” Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a statement. “We know we cannot return to the pre-pandemic model of learning because it was not working for all students. We have learned a lot since the closure of school buildings in 2020 and are excited for this opportunity to remove the barrier of lack of funding, so we can focus on transforming the educational experience for all our students.”
The commission’s meetings, which will be held virtually and include a public comment at the end, will culminate in the funding plan being presented and posted for a formal 30-day public review and comment period, according to the district.
At a Boston School Committee meeting Wednesday night, Cassellius faced questions about the commission from multiple board members who were concerned about whether the voices of families and students will be represented on the commission.
Ernani DeAraujo, one of the committee members, said he was concerned that the commission is “heavy on professional advocates” and theorists, but not with families.
“If I go to families in Jamaica Plain, if I go to families in East Boston, they know every inch of every building of their schools,” he said. “They can tell you how this money should be spent, how it should be invested. They can tell you what their kids need. The educators can tell you, you know, with great specificity, what the needs are. Why don’t we lead with that?”
Jeri Robinson, a school committee member who is also serving on the funding commission, has heard concerns that the parent and student voices on the commission won’t represent the full student community.
Robinson asked the superintendent: How can we engage newer parent and student groups to ensure their ideas are heard outside of only public comment periods in meetings?
“People are concerned that public comment is just that. It’s not a dialogue,” Robinson said.
Cassellius assured the committee that the district will involve parents and other community members in the conversation. However, she said, district officials hope to have more guidance from the state about the funding before launching into other public meetings.
“I think that we had to announce our external partners [on this commission] to get on their calendars, and we have already structures in place for involving our parents,” she told the committee.
Transparency and the inclusion of a wide variety of voices on the commission will be key to its success, said Will Austin, chief executive officer of Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit that raises money to make high-quality schools accessible for all Boston students.
If the city doesn’t have enough families, educators, or community members “who have the actual experience of doing this work” on the commission, Austin said in an interview, “then you need to get them to the table.”
“You can’t make a plan for their needs unless you know what their needs are.”