Student walkout promoted by union-affiliated organizations
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After more than 1,000 Boston public school students walked out of classes Monday and marched though downtown to protest proposed budget cuts, Mayor Martin J. Walsh was fuming.
"I'd love to see who's behind the walkout," he said. "Whoever's behind it, I hope they start to feed the young students in our city with accurate information and not misguided information."
The walkout was promoted by two groups with union ties: the Boston Education Justice Alliance and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, which said the protest was part of a nationwide series of actions to fight cuts to school budgets.
The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools has member organizations that include politically potent labor groups such as the National Education Association and Service Employees International Union.
The Boston Education Justice Alliance has 17 member organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts and its local affiliate, the Boston Teachers' Union.
"I support the students in terms of them advocating for their needs," said Dina Cundiff, the mother of a first grader at the Trotter School and a member of the Citywide Parent Council. "However, I think they are being misguided, and they are being used as propaganda."
But union leaders said they had no formal role in planning the walkout, which they said was led by students angry about the estimated $10 million to $12 million in cuts proposed by the Walsh administration.
"We had almost nothing to do with it," said Russ Davis, executive director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, a union-backed advocacy group that is a founding member of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. "We offered to support them, and we spread the word, but that definitely came out of the students being upset at the cuts happening at the schools."
Still, union groups have close ties to the alliance. Its sole full-time coordinator, Marléna Rose, is employed by Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, which receives about one quarter of its $647,000 budget from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's largest union.
But Davis said Rose reports to all of the alliance's member organizations and is paid with private foundation funds, not union money.
The alliance promoted the walkout on its website and sent an e-mail urging parents to support the effort by walking with their children, bringing water bottles or granola bars to the march, or helping students navigate the State House.
The alliance was also active in a student protest last month that drew about 200 young people to City Hall, demanding full funding for public schools. That event, too, was part of a national day of action organized by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools.
Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, acknowledged that his group is a member of the Boston Education Justice Alliance but said his union did not condone or encourage the latest walkout.
"It was started by a group of high school students, and it spread through social media," Stutman said. "I think it's great that kids can demonstrate, and demonstrate peacefully."
Stutman added that the BTU does not provide financial support for the Boston Education Justice Alliance.
Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, also said her union, though it helps to finance Jobs with Justice, played no role in organizing the walkout.
"My goal was to celebrate it, and I thought it was awesome," Madeloni said. "People have a hard time respecting the power of student leadership, and the way students can name issues and organize themselves."
Erik Lazo, a 16-year-old sophomore at Snowden International School and a leader of the protest, said he first got involved months ago, after he heard that a Japanese class at his school was slated for elimination due to budget cuts.
He said he spoke to the 10th grade student council at his school, which hatched the idea for the walkout.
The Boston Youth Organizing Project, a community group that is a member of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, provided students with office space and supplies to make posters, he said. Word of the protest spread quickly, he said, after the students publicized the walkout on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat.
"We had adult help, but it was the students who came up with the idea," Lazo said. "It was totally the students, the youth."
He said he was irked by Walsh's comments suggesting that adults had sparked the protest.
"It feels like he's trying to save himself," he said.
Jahi Spaloss, 18, a senior at Boston Green Academy and an organizer at the Boston Youth Organizing Project, said he was also taken aback by the mayor's remarks.
"The mayor was simply assuming and stereotyping that young people weren't able to organize an entire event, which was purely done by students," he said. "We do this because it's the right thing, it's humane, it's part of our morality."
Asked for comment on Wednesday, Walsh sounded a more conciliatory note.
"I commend the students across the district for being passionate about our school system and letting their voices be heard this week," he said in a statement. The mayor added the he wants to "work collaboratively with student leadership organizations to provide opportunities to lead meaningful discussions on the BPS budget process."