The jobs of more than 600 teachers, other educators, and support personnel in the Boston Public Schools are in jeopardy as the district faces the loss of millions of dollars in federal funds that will likely spur school budget cuts across the city.
The bleak financial outlook is the worst the district has confronted in several years and it could lead to the closing of dozens of classrooms and reductions in support services for students.
At least one school, UP Academy Boston, will likely shut down at the end of this school year. BPS plans to merge the in-district charter school, which is located in South Boston, with UP Academy Dorchester because of declining enrollment, according to letters the schools sent to parents last week.
Fueling the districtwide cuts is the expiration of $454 million in federal pandemic funding the district has been receiving since the beginning of the public health crisis. The last of those funds must be spent during the first half of the next fiscal year, which begins July 2024.
Although Mayor Michelle Wu has indicated she will increase city funding for BPS’s budget next year, district leaders don’t have a final figure yet and doubt it will be large enough to make up for the loss of pandemic funding. They say it will force them to make decisions they have put off for years to address the loss of about 8,000 students over the last decade. BPS currently serves about 48,000 students.
“BPS, like every other large urban district, has seen declining enrollment over the last decade,” said Superintendent Mary Skipper in remarks to the School Committee Wednesday night. “We are taking steps now to ensure that instead of continuing to keep the lights on in empty classrooms, we are focusing our investments on the things that benefit students the most.”
BPS currently operates on a $1.4 billion annual budget — an amount that doesn’t include the federal relief funds. BPS now has the highest per student spending among the nation’s largest districts, according to the US Census Bureau.
However, BPS is already facing a potential $6.4 million budget deficit this school year, largely due to rising costs of providing school meals and busing students out of the district for specialized services. Tuition costs for students with disabilities who attend private schools also spiked unexpectedly.
BPS leaders have expressed optimism they will end the fiscal year within budget, as they done have in the past, although sometimes by thin margins. For the last fiscal year, BPS posted $468 surplus.
BPS has relied heavily on federal funds to support many different services, such as summer school, tutoring, and new literacy programs, and to subsidize the operations of schools with declining enrollment. About two-thirds of the more than 600 federally-funded positions are based in schools and include teachers, reading interventionists, lunch monitors, nurses, and psychologists.
Dereck Medina, 16, a sophomore at Margarita Muñiz Academy in Jamaica Plain, said the additional funding has been beneficial. His school opened a library with new books this year.
But signs of potential budget issues are evident with the school lunches, which he said taste like heated-up frozen dinners and are “bland and tasteless.”
“For two days I haven’t been able to eat the lunches because they are not good,” he said. “I can’t imagine what will happen when budget cuts happen because the lunches will probably be worse.”
Suleika Soto, a parent organizer with the Boston Education Justice Alliance, a citywide advocacy organization, said she is worried cuts to staff and programs could prevent students from doing well academically and with their social-emotional well-being.
“I’m just afraid everything will go away and we will go backwards,” said Soto, whose two daughters attend TechBoston Academy in Dorchester. She urged BPS to work with each school community to minimize budget cuts.
If BPS wants to preserve positions and programs paid for with federal funds, it will need to add those expenses to its regular operating budget or find other areas in its budget to cut.
Securing additional funding could be a potentially tough sell on the City Council, where discontent over district spending has been simmering for years. Councilor Julia Mejia, chair of the council’s Education Committee, said BPS needs to do a better job of managing its money.
“When it comes to BPS, they are going to have to do a lot of soul searching to get ahead of the financial deficit we might end up in,” Mejia said.
A recent analysis by Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab concluded that Massachusetts districts should be better positioned than those elsewhere to weather federal funding losses. That’s because the state has been funneling more money into local districts, under a school funding law enacted in 2019. The state’s new millionaire’s tax also devotes more money to education.
However, Boston schools don’t benefit much from state aid because of the state funding formula, which relies heavily on a community’s property and income wealth. Although more than two-thirds of BPS students are low income, the city’s overall household income levels and property values are above state averages.
Jessica Tang, the Boston Teachers Union president, urged the state to provide more funding so schools can avoid painful decisions, such as having to choose between social workers and art teachers, to balance their budgets. She also asked BPS to prioritize social-emotional supports.
“Every student deserves access to high quality education and our schools need more funding — not less — to ensure that happens,” she said in a statement.
In making budget decisions, Skipper said schools will need to align spending with district priorities, which includes overhauling literacy instruction, providing students with social-emotional supports, and integrating students with disabilities and English learners into traditional classrooms.
Over the next month, principals will meet with teachers, students, and parents to decide what cuts to make and possibly negotiate with the district for more money. Skipper is slated to present next school year’s budget to the School Committee Feb. 7.