Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper plans to spend $1.4 billion, a $65 million increase, on the city’s schools next year. The latest hike would bring per-student spending to $28,800, up 39 percent since pre-pandemic, according to the preliminary budget unveiled Wednesday.
The additional money would go to new investments, such as a new literacy curriculum and improvements to instruction of students with disabilities and English learners, as well as to covering increased costs, such as rising salaries.
The new budget would also move $15 million in initiatives, such as hiring literacy coaches or adding mental health services, that the district has funded with federal pandemic relief funds into the operating budget. Meanwhile, the district will use those federal dollars to pay for the budget cushion the district has used to buoy low-enrolled schools. Since that money runs out in late 2024, the district is setting itself a deadline to either cut those schools’ budgets — potentially closing classrooms or schools — or come up with another source of funds.
“Coming up as a school leader ... every year it wasn’t a question of are you going to need to cut, it was always how much,” Skipper said in an interview ahead of the budget’s release. “Fortunately for BPS, the last four or five years, it has been very steady budget increases, to be able to do the essential work for students.”
Speaking to the School Committee Wednesday, Chief Financial Officer Nate Kuder said that the new budget was guided by two themes: closing achievement gaps between high-needs students and their peers, and engaging the community.
Where is the district investing money?
The biggest new investments in the proposed budget go to three of the centerpieces of Skipper’s plans to address learning losses from the pandemic and comply with a state-mandated reform agreement that averted the district being labeled underperforming:
- $9.6 million to begin placing more students with disabilities in general education classrooms in 22 schools around the district.
- $6.3 million to expand multilingual education, including bilingual and native language instruction, and hiring multilingual social workers geared at helping students who arrive in the district with limited or interrupted formal education.
- $3.5 million to bolster the district’s new equitable literacy curriculum.
District leaders plan to add over 200 new positions. Overall, strategic investments such as these make up $26 million of the proposed budget increase.
What else is driving the budget increase?
Increased costs account for $48.6 million in additional spending, with salaries, busing, and facility upkeep and improvements making up the bulk of that.
“There are particular areas — special education, certainly transportation — where what we did last year, to do the same work, costs more money,” Skipper said.
Overall, salary costs would increase by $28.7 million to more than $900 million in the new budget.
What about federal relief funds?
The district will save some of that salary money by paying for it with pandemic relief money, also known as ESSER funds. In the final full school year with access to its more than $400 million federal dollars, the district plans to use some of it to cover $16.8 million in salary costs and $24.5 million in “hold-harmless” money that the district budgets for schools with falling enrollment.
That sets the district up for a moment of truth in the following fiscal year, when those funds will go away. District officials said their goal is to use the operating budget for positions that align with district priorities — such as closing achievement gaps or inclusive special education — without requiring cuts anywhere else this year. For the following year, the district is exploring a new school funding formula, and Skipper hopes some district initiatives will free up school-level resources in future years. But the end of ESSER money will also require steps like reducing the number of classrooms in underenrolled schools — or closing those schools altogether.
“For a while now schools have received soft landing as a way to compensate for declining enrollment, and that has been kind of artificially inflating the budgets,” Skipper said, referring to the money that keeps underenrolled schools afloat.
Positions that will be shifted onto ESSER budgets for schools with declining enrollment include assistant principals and teachers in non-core subjects, Kuder said.
Where does the additional money come from?
The BPS budget comes from the city of Boston, which gets most of its revenue from property taxes. Thanks to the city’s growth and rising property values, the property tax rate has not changed much in recent years even as the city’s and district’s budgets have grown (though homeowners have seen hikes to their tax bills, because of rising assessments). The city also gets more than $200 million per year in state education aid, but most of that money goes to the city’s charter schools.
The district’s capital projects — the building spree envisioned in Mayor Michelle Wu’s Green New Deal for Boston Public Schools — are funded in the city’s capital budget. The city budget is unveiled in April each year.
What happens now?
The School Committee will spend several more meetings on the budget, including hearing from the public on the spending plan, before a vote scheduled for March 22.
District officials faced extensive questions from the School Committee Wednesday about which recent investments have worked, how the district will mitigate the impact of cuts when ESSER funds run out, and what exactly the budget increase will look like at the classroom level. Kuder pledged to provide more details at future meetings.
Christopher Huffaker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.