After student walkouts, Walsh moves to block budget cuts
Days after thousands of students walked out to protest budget cuts, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Thursday that he plans to announce that Boston high schools will be spared the controversial reductions that endangered popular programs and teacher jobs.
Instead of making significant cuts to high school budgets, the School Department will delay about $6 million in new programs and pull dollars from district-wide budget items, city officials said. In the end, high schools are expected to receive slightly more money next year, according to the officials.
“For the young people that expressed their concerns the other day, this addresses their concerns,” Walsh said in an interview.
Walsh, who has made improving the city’s high schools a key part of his education goals, said preventing painful cuts to the schools was a priority.
“I have to remember every single day that this is not my money,” Walsh said. “It’s taxpayers’ dollars, and it’s taxpayers’ dollars that we have to spend wisely.”
He said he expects some relief in the budget pinch from an additional $5 million in charter school reimbursements to Boston that Governor Charlie Baker has proposed. But he added that the School Department needs to do more to curb spending, something that he said Superintendent Tommy Chang is already working on for the 2017 and 2018 school years.
The budget shift is being unveiled less than two weeks before the School Committee is scheduled to vote on the record budget proposal, which will top $1 billion for the second year in a row. Chang said he will present the new proposal to the committee next week.
It also comes amid increasing pressure from students, parents, and teachers who were outraged over plans to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from individual schools, eliminating teaching jobs, and reducing Advanced Placement courses, electives, and special education offerings.
On Monday, about 3,650 students — mostly from the city’s high schools — walked out of class in protest, according to School Department figures, and more than 1,000 rallied outside the State House. That night, parents, students, and teachers packed a School Committee budget hearing to challenge the cuts.
While Walsh said that he had taken into account the concerns of students and parents, the public outcry over the budget cuts was not the sole reason for the shift.
“This is something that I hear from parents, and I’ve heard from people now for the last month . . . sending me messages and calling me on phone,” he said. “I commend the kids for their advocacy here.”
A city official said the plans to prevent cuts include scrapping a proposal to shift high schools from a six- to seven-period school day, which would have required teachers to take on an additional class each day. The extra period would have allowed the district to eliminate some teaching positions, the official said.
Walsh discussed the budget shift with Chang on Thursday and planned to announce the new plan on Friday.
Chang said he will delay plans for some of his signature initiatives, such as offering expanded access to rigorous course work for elementary school students, until the school district gets more money to pay for that effort.
“We’re gaining more and more clarity from the state and federal government that additional funding will be forthcoming, so I’m making a . . . strategic move to make sure our high schools are restored first,” Chang said. “Our high schools need to retain positions. They need to build programming.”
The superintendent said when students return to school in the fall, they will see little that is different.
“Our students should anticipate that programming at our high schools will be maintained,” he said.
In January, Chang told families that the district faced a budget deficit of up to $50 million for the coming fiscal year, as expenses increase and federal and state aid to the School Department declines.
Last month, Chang presented to the School Committee a blueprint proposal that would have cut about $25.5 million from central departments, and about half that amount from individual schools. That plan also included funding for hundreds of new preschool seats and the expanded access to rigorous course work for elementary school students.
Dozens of students, parents, and educators spoke for more than an hour at that meeting, calling on city and state officials to find a way to preserve school budgets.
The proposed budget includes a $13.5 million increase, as Boston’s total education spending exceeds appropriations for the city’s other 39 departments combined, city officials have said.
But that modest bump is not enough to pay for both $11 million in new spending and a $38 million increase in costs, more than half of which come from the growing costs of salaries and benefits.