The Boston School Committee voted Wednesday night to approve a slate of high-profile measures that could reverberate for years to come as the district tries to turn its operations around, launch a new era of school construction, and prepare itself for a coming financial cliff as pandemic-era federal aid comes to an end.
The committee approved, with a great deal of contention, the superintendent’s $1.45 billion revised budget for the 2023-2024 school year. The committee also approved a controversial five-year contract for the district’s existing school bus company, and a request for state funding for a new building for a merged Shaw-Taylor elementary school.
The $1.45 billion spending plan
The committee members voted 4-2 in favor of Superintendent Mary Skipper’s budget, which includes a $7 million increase over her initial proposal attributed to union contracts signed after the initial budget was presented. The revised budget is a $71.7 million increase over the current budget, with the additional money going to both new investments and increased costs, such as rising salaries.
School Committee Member Brandon Cardet-Hernandez voted against Skipper’s budget, calling it “fiscally irresponsible” to increase the budget despite hundreds of vacancies and declining enrollment and to use federal ESSER relief funds to cushion the budget of schools with shrinking enrollments, when that money will run out in late 2024.
“It sort of defies common sense that we would choose to make the system more costly and sort of more difficult to adjust downward in the coming year,” Cardet-Hernandez said.
If approved by the city, the budget would use over $30 million in ESSER funding to buoy schools with falling enrollment, including paying for 255 staff members at 95 schools. Currently, that support is paid for out of the general fund; moving it to the ESSER budget, which ends the following year, sets those schools up for significant cuts or closure in the Fiscal Year 2025 and beyond.
On the flip side, $15 million in services currently paid for with ESSER, including 70 staff positions, would be moved onto the general fund budget.
The changes are designed to hold onto investments initially made with ESSER money that align with district priorities — like reading specialists and ESL teachers — while using the last year of ESSER money to give schools another year to prepare for cuts they would have faced due to declining enrollment if the district had not maintained their budgets through the pandemic.
Member Stephen Alkins joined Cardet-Hernandez in voting against the budget. But despite shared qualms over the looming fiscal cliff when ESSER funds run out and other aspects of the budget, the other members present voted in favor. Member Lorena Lopera was absent.
Chairwoman Jeri Robinson defended the use of ESSER funds to protect schools from cuts.
“You just can’t rip off bandaids,” Robinson said.
Cardet-Hernandez called for an emergency meeting to write a new budget, but member Michael O’Neill argued it would be too disruptive to rewrite the budget in the short time available before Mayor Michelle Wu must send a budget to the City Council in April.
Building money for merged schools
The committee unanimously approved plans to request funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority for a new elementary school building in Southern Dorchester or Mattapan. The school would house a merged P.A. Shaw Elementary and Charles H. Taylor Elementary.
The proposal still faces hurdles: State building aid is difficult to get, and the merger itself, which has generated controversy, also needs School Committee approval.
If the district’s application is approved, the state authority would partially reimburse the cost of building a new facility. BPS will not find out whether the state will fund the project until the end of 2023 and construction would not begin for three to four years.
Controversial bus contract
Finally, the committee signed off on a new five-year bus contract with Transdev, the district’s current contractor.
Member Rafaela Polanco Garcia abstained from approving the controversial contract, which follows longtime performance problems and warnings from multiple watchdogs about a process that produced just one bid. But the rest of the committee members present voted in favor, despite open hesitation from some of them.
The current Transdev bus contract expires June 30, leaving little time to replace a contractor that transports around 22,000 students to more than 200 public and private schools each day. Under the new contract, officials have said, the company would be forced to pay steep financial penalties if too many buses are late or don’t show up at all, unlike prior contracts that effectively gave the company no incentive to improve.
The $17.5 million per year contract also shifts costs like utilities, maintenance, and snow removal from the district to Transdev.
The new bus contract comes at a critical time for BPS, with the district under state pressure to make substantial progress on late buses. Since the start of this school year, the district has been operating under a state edict to get at least 95 percent of its buses to run on time each month — a bar BPS has yet to meet.
The committee also heard a report on district efforts to address absenteeism, after the fraction of students who were chronically absent skyrocketed to over 40 percent last year. According to the presentation, the proportion missing 10 percent or more of school has fallen almost 8 points relative to this point last year, but remains higher than in any year before 2021-2022.
Christopher Huffaker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.