It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic supercharged a decline in enrollment in public schools across the country, and Boston Public Schools is no exception. But while COVID accelerated the decline, BPS enrollment has been on a downward trajectory for two decades.
A recent analysis by the Boston Schools Fund found enrollment declined for the eighth straight year in 2022 and is down 15.3 percent since 2014, a loss of more than 8,000 students — most of them Black students. More than 60 percent of BPS schools had a decrease in enrollment over the past five years.
Yet BPS continues to operate 125 school buildings with a capacity to serve 55,200 students — 6,900 more than are currently enrolled. Demographic trends show that Boston will need fewer schools as time goes on, not more. Underutilized buildings cost the same to run as fully enrolled schools, but BPS is operating and transporting students to — at a minimum — 16 more school buildings than it needs.
This poses fiscal, educational, and environmental challenges.
Because funding is based on enrollment, underenrolled schools have less money to pay bills and ensure students have the schoolwide resources, academic supports, and staffing they need to learn.
For years, BPS filled the financial gaps caused by enrollment declines with “soft landing” funding. This money allows schools to function at a basic level and forestall cuts even when per-pupil funding doesn’t cover costs.
When I joined the Boston School Committee in 2010, then chief financial officer John McDonough told me BPS had to “rightsize” the district because empty seats were costing in excess of $25 million per year. In 2022, that figure grew to more than $56 million annually — more than the entire budget of approximately 80 percent of other Massachusetts school districts. Over the past three years, BPS spent a staggering $101 million in soft landings for empty seats.
This is fiscally and environmentally unsustainable, impeding the city’s ability to reach critical climate goals. BPS continues to shuttle children to partially empty schools on emission-spewing buses, creating nearly 50 percent of all emissions produced by the city government.
The uncomfortable truth is Boston will never be able to create or invest in a truly sustainable school system until the city commits to optimizing and modernizing it. Decisions must be made around school closings and/or consolidations, as well as workforce reductions.
Successive mayors haven’t solved the issue, worsening the district’s excess-capacity problem over time. Branded public plans, such as former mayors Tom Menino’s “Redesign and Reinvest” and Marty Walsh’s BuildBPS, have not produced two critical outputs: modernized school buildings and a district footprint aligned with actual enrollment. With the Green New Deal for BPS, Mayor Michelle Wu has an opportunity to address underenrollment and ensure the district provides quality over quantity.
The longer Wu waits to address this problem, the more likely families will be to leave the school system and even the city as they see the quality of their children’s education decline. Recent MassINC polling showed that Boston families are open to, and often prefer, alternatives to BPS, including Catholic, private, and charter public schools.
District and city leaders need to answer important questions: What is the educational experience we want every child to have? How many students are needed in a school to make it financially sustainable and provide the inclusive education students deserve? How can funding previously used for soft landings be leveraged to improve education for students starting in pre-K, ensuring arts, science/technology, comprehensive special education services and mental health support systems, college and career exploration and preparation, athletics, and extracurriculars?
BPS needs a planning process to rightsize the district to increase quality and equity. This begins with transparency about the scope of the problems and the sacrifices the district is currently making to keep this system afloat, while not actually providing students the education they deserve.
BPS should institute a community-centered, long-term capital plan that modernizes school buildings and creates higher quality schools and programs that meet the needs of all students. However, it can’t get there with a piecemeal approach and a lack of courage to make difficult decisions.
Wu has the power to comprehensively address this now. If not, Boston will continue to lose families to other districts that are willing to invest in the students who actually sit in their classrooms.
Mary Tamer is state director for Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts and a former member of the Boston School Committee.