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Boston School Committee adopts controversial budget

Students at Boston Latin School studied near the music and theater departments.
Students at Boston Latin School studied near the music and theater departments. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file 2016

The Boston School Committee voted 5-2 on Wednesday night to approve a $1 billion budget proposal from Superintendent Tommy Chang that will maintain high school programs, but reduce funding for special education and some pre-school programs, while making investments elsewhere to expand pre-school seats.

The vote followed passionate criticism from parents, students, and teachers, who said that cutting funds for schools would take away critical resources and eliminate jobs for teachers and support staff whom students rely upon for educational, emotional, and health needs.

Committee members spent about 45 minutes discussing the budget, with most expressing frustration over having to make cuts. Committee members Regina Robinson and Miren Uriarte cast the lone votes against the budget.

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Uriarte called the budget “a perfect storm” of overlapping challenges.

Chang defended the budget — his first since taking office in July — saying that it reflected tough choices and that his team “made every effort to create a fair and equitable budget.”

Still, his budget was harshly criticized by many of the more than 100 people who attended the meeting, and 35 teachers parents and children who addressed the committee.

Some wept openly as they discussed programs that help students cope with academic and personal struggles.

One man read aloud Langston Hughes’ famous poem “Harlem,” which asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Chang’s budget had been closely scrutinized since he announced in January that the district faced a shortfall that could climb as high as $50 million. The spending plan was ultimately balanced by cutting $32 million and delaying $6 million in new initiatives while awaiting additional state and federal money.

There was at least one bright spot for Charlestown High School, as Chang announced that the district would restore funding for its lauded Diploma Plus program for teens in danger of dropping out, in part through financial support from Liberty Mutual Group. Chang said he hopes to see the program expand over time to other schools.

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Parent Tonya Tedesco told the committee that she finds it shameful that such initiatives — as well as programs at Boston Arts Academy, where her daughter is a student — must rely on outside donations.

“Why are our public schools being forced to base their curricular offerings on the whims of philanthropic organizations?” she asked.

Some of those at the meeting called for the School Committee to vote against the budget proposal, but committee chairman Michael D. O’Neill said that the panel is required by state law to accept a balanced budget by the fourth Wednesday in March.

Among the budget’s most controversial provisions is a $5 million cut to special-education that would reduce funding to schools by about $2,000 for each child diagnosed with autism.

For children with emotional impairments, schools would lose $3,000 for elementary students and $1,200 for secondary students, as the district moves to a uniform allocation for both groups.

For children with unidentified disabilities who are placed in classrooms with children without disabilities, schools would lose $5,300 each.

The special education cuts were the subject of withering criticism from some parents and teachers.

“Was there a report released that showed that all of these students were exceeding their educational goals?” asked John St. Amand, vice-chairman of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council.

Despite the restoration of funds for some programs, many high schools are still struggling to maintain programs and teaching jobs, students and parents said.

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Keith Magni, a physics teacher at Boston Community Leadership Academy and the father of a preschool student, said the cuts disproportionately affect black and Latino students.

“A vote for this budget is a vote complicit with institutional racism,” Magni said. “A vote for this budget says black lives don’t matter.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@jeremycfox.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Boston School Committee member Miren Uriarte.