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Boston School Committee passes $1.3b budget for coming year

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and Mayor Michelle Wu spoke outside Brighton High School after Cassellius announced her departure in February.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The Boston School Committee on Wednesday approved a $1.3 billion budget for the coming fiscal year, a $40 million increase over current spending.

The committee voted 6-1 to approve the public schools’ budget, which will finance more mental health counselors, new school libraries, and stricter graduation requirements aimed at better preparing students for college. The budget, which must be approved by the City Council before taking effect in July, increases per-student spending nearly 9 percent to $27,100.

“I’m super proud of this budget,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told the committee. “It signifies a deep commitment in our city, in our children, and in the direction that we are headed around our strategic plan.”

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The district will spend at least $49 million next year — up from $27.4 million this year — to keep under-enrolled schools open, a move that Cassellius acknowledged is not sustainable for the long term but is necessary to preserve stability and avoid school closures as students recover from the turmoil of the pandemic.

School Committee vice-chair Michael O’Neill said he agreed with that decision although he predicted the district will have to close schools in the near future when federal pandemic aid ends. The district’s enrollment has fallen nearly 13 percent since 2016, due in part to lower birth rates and families moving outside the city to less expensive housing. Boston lost around 2,000 students in the past year, causing enrollment to fall below 50,000 for the first time in decades.

“We don’t want to unfairly hurt schools when our students are so much recovering from the pandemic,” O’Neill said. “But there is a potential storm cloud or two on the horizon, two or three years out.”

The sole committee member who voted against the budget was Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, who expressed concerns about the district’s plans to add 117 new positions when it is facing 864 vacancies, a result of a staffing shortage affecting school districts nationwide.

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“There will eventually be other school closures,” he said. “We will eventually need to constrict in size. It just presents challenges I think are worth naming in a public setting.”

He also questioned how the new budget would address concerns of state education leaders that the district is not adequately serving students with disabilities. That was one of several issues cited by the state’s education commissioner, Jeffrey Riley, in initiating a new review of the city’s school system. The review, which is slated to start next week, has prompted speculation that the state could be building a case to take control of the district’s operations and budget by appointing its own leader, called a receiver.

“With receivership, let’s hope that doesn’t come to pass,” Cassellius responded. “We’re preparing ourselves for a progress review. Obviously there is still quite a huge amount of effort that we need to do to make sure that our students achieve the goals that we have set out for them.”

David Bloom, the system’s deputy chief financial officer, said the district is adding $5 million to hire additional educators trained in special education. About 70 percent of those educators would help expand inclusion classrooms, which include mainstream students and students with disabilities. The rest would largely provide behavioral services for students with autism, Bloom said.

BPS has seen several consecutive years of budget increases. The $40 million increase under Mayor Michelle Wu is larger than spending hikes of $34 million and $36 million, respectively, during the last two years of former mayor Martin J. Walsh’s tenure.

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The new budget also takes steps toward Cassellius’s goal of providing every school with a “quality guarantee,” or baseline of amenities and services such as a gym, auditorium, and science labs. The budget allocates $3.6 million to hire 33 full-time librarians in 38 schools. The district also has budgeted $2.3 million to hire 22 new school psychologists.

The district also plans to spend millions more to offer new academic courses that will be required to graduate. Under the new program, all incoming freshmen will be expected to complete MassCore, a state-recommended program of college-preparatory courses including four years of English, math, and physical education and three years of science and social studies. Last year, only 37 percent of BPS graduates completed MassCore, with about one-third of Black and Latino students taking all the recommended courses, compared to 53 percent of white students.


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.