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Metco advocates lobby lawmakers to increase spending for program

Obiageli Akubude, left, and Autumn Mendonca, seated, met with other students in the office of State Rep. Rob Consalvo during Metco's Advocacy Day at the State House.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Hundreds of Metco students, parents, and district leaders took to the Massachusetts State House Tuesday to lobby legislators for more money, after Governor Maura Healey’s budget proposal failed to renew half a million in funds for the voluntary school integration program.

Healey’s spending plan proposes $28.9 million for the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, $500,000 less than the $29.4 million allocated to the program in the current fiscal year. Healey’s budget excludes the one-time funding the state allocated last year for a pilot program aimed at racial equity work in Metco.

But advocates are seeking a $2.8 million boost in funding, citing increased operational expenses, such as transportation costs, due to inflation.

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Milly Arbaje-Thomas, Metco’s chief executive, said if Metco doesn’t get more state funding, the program would have to cut staff, reduce buses, and put its equity work on hold.

No funding increase “in essence is a cut because every single year costs go up,” Arbaje-Thomas said. “We all know since that pandemic and since inflation that the bus transportation costs have increased tremendously, gas has increased, our bus contracts have increased.”

Arbaje-Thomas said the $2.8 million ask would help add 116 students in six communities that want expand their programs, provide more social workers and counselors in schools, and defray bus transportation costs.

“The Healey Driscoll Administration is committed to ensuring all Massachusetts schools are diverse and equitably serving the families and communities that they are meant to — a priority which aligns with the core goal of Massachusetts’ longstanding METCO program: offering integrated educational experiences for students,” said the Executive Office of Education spokesperson, who pointed to the proposal that funds the program at the same amount, minus the additional one-year funding infusion, and money for the Student Opportunity Act, which aims to close achievement gaps among students with different backgrounds.

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Metco was created in 1966 to increase educational opportunities for Black students from Boston and expose white suburban students to more racial diversity. Nearly 60 years later, the program has expanded to provide opportunities for Latino, Asian, and Indigenous students and serves over 3,000 kids in 33 districts around Massachusetts.

Wellesley Metco Director Karsten Cash said without the funding increase, districts must figure out how to provide after school programs and activities, academic support programs, and weekend learning opportunities for Metco students.

“We run the risk of losing out on transportation to get access to these programs,” Cash said. “That’s what it’s really all about. It’s about access to high quality opportunities, that are then going to enrich the lives and enrich the worldview of our young people.”

During Tuesday’s Metco Advocacy Day event, families joined Metco representatives to talk to the lawmakers who represent their communities in Boston and the districts where the students attend school.

Obiageli Akubude, a senior at Concord-Carlisle High School, told a crowd of just under 100 supporters during Tuesday’s event that her greatest accomplishment as a Metco student has been “demonstrating to white students and faculty that Black excellence exists and that it is here.”

“I work extra every day to not let the systemic set up of my environment, financial situation, and much more get to my mind, deteriorate my soul, and ruin my spirit,” Akubude said. “Metco allowed me to speed up the walk to closing my disparity gap and, most importantly, Metco molded me.”

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Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her @adriarwatson.