Boston schools brace for more cuts
Revenue shrinks amid plans for new initiatives
The Boston school system, as it prepares a budget for the next academic year, is bracing for the potential of tens of millions of dollars in cuts that are putting schools and parents on edge.
While the school system has not generated a total spending figure for the next school year, district leaders say they expect the cost of maintaining programs will increase between $55 million and $65 million because of higher transportation costs, contractually negotiated pay raises for teachers and other unionized employees, and other factors. School officials also anticipate a $14 million decline in federal funds.
“The costs are rising faster than the revenue,” said Michael O’Neill, the School Committee chairman. “That is our challenge.”
The grim outlook comes as the system undertakes pricey new initiatives.
Last week, the school system, the teachers union, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced their intent to add 40 minutes a day at more than 50 elementary, middle, and K-8 schools over the next three years, gradually increasing spending over that time by about $12 million to cover the initiative.
The school system also made a significant change in hiring last school year, giving principals the authority to select outside candidates over internal applicants. Consequently, 72 teachers who had previously gained “permanent” employment status have not been assigned to their own classrooms, forcing the school system to create co-teaching positions for them at a cost of about $6 million.
Aside from extending the school day, school officials have outlined other new initiatives.
They want to overhaul high schools, step up interventions at struggling schools, restore deferred maintenance on school buildings, expand the number of K1 classrooms, and increase the number of classrooms that educate both regular education and special education students.
But O’Neill said the school system cannot let tight finances prevent Boston from pursuing new initiatives if it wants to improve schools and the academic success of its students.
Parents, tired of seeing cherished teachers lose jobs or witnessing the demise of art or other programs, already are mobilizing. On Monday, the Parent Council at Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain took to YouTube and posted an 11-minute video explaining how the budget process works in hopes of inspiring more parents to get involved.
“We live in one of the richest cities in the country, but we can’t get our act together to fully fund the education of our kids,” Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, the parent co-chair of the Curley’s School Site Council, said in an interview. “It seems like parents are the only ones advocating for our kids because we know the extent of the cuts.
“Strong schools probably are the greatest asset to every neighborhood. I don’t understand why that is not front and center,” Berents-Weeramuni said.
It remains unclear which schools could suffer the biggest hits. Budget allocations are made on a per-student basis. More information will be known later this month when principals consult parents on developing their individual school budgets.
Interim Superintendent John McDonough will then present a systemwide budget to the School Committee on Feb. 4.
Tight budgets have become the norm in the Boston schools, initially spurred by an economic slowdown during the last decade. The city’s school system, like others statewide, is still struggling to recover because of sluggish revenue and rising costs.
Even as the Boston system looks toward its next budget, it is still trying to balance its current one, which is accruing about a $10 million shortfall, a typical amount for this time of the year, school officials said.
That gap is emerging for a variety of reasons. Most notably, the cost of food services is running about a $4 million deficit and the school system, at the request of the mayor, decided to delay plans for a year to eliminate bus service for seventh-graders.
In response to this year’s budget gap, the school system has enacted a hiring freeze on all non-classroom positions, reduced spending on catering, and taken other measures.
McDonough warned the School Committee at a meeting last month that the system would face another difficult budget year and that there would be tough trade-offs to balance the budget and fund new initiatives.
The extent of the cuts that will be needed as the city pushes ahead with new initiatives will hinge on how much Walsh is willing to spend on education next year. Last year, Walsh supported an approximately 4 percent increase in spending, pushing the overall school budget to about $975 million. The city’s contribution to the school budget represents the lion’s share of revenue.
Even then, the school system still had to cut $100 million in spending to compensate for rising costs and new initiatives.
The cuts included ending bus service for most eighth-graders, and eliminating dozens of central office and teaching positions.
O’Neill said he expects Walsh to be supportive of another budget increase for next year, saying “he continues to focus on minimizing cuts in the classrooms.”
Kate Norton, a mayoral spokeswoman, said Wednesday that Walsh is still working through the budget process.
Many parents and teachers say the state should shoulder a larger share of school spending in Boston and elsewhere, especially as Massachusetts pursues new mandates, such as overhauling teacher evaluations and trying out a replacement for the MCAS exams.
In Boston, state aid covers only 11 percent of this year’s school budget, a level that has been dropping for much of the last 15 years.
“All sorts of people need to step up, including those on Beacon Hill,” said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. “It’s disruptive to plan something in year one and have it cut in year two. . . . We are all sick and tired of this.”