Among the ‘big ideas’ for Boston schools: Closures
Boston parents, students, and teachers, consider yourselves warned: School closures are still on the table.
The school system’s long-term financial advisory committee is expected to release a much-anticipated report Tuesday morning on “10 big ideas” that could lead to $100 million in annual savings. Among them: closing schools, cutting buses for potentially 11,000 students, and scrutinizing teacher pay and special education services.
The options, which are scheduled to be presented at a panel discussion Tuesday, aim to bring financial stability to a school system that has been cutting millions of dollars to balance its budget annually as it grapples with expenditures that have been growing much faster than revenues.
City and school officials emphasized in a briefing with reporters Monday that the options are not formal recommendations. Rather, they are intended as a starting point for a public conversation on how the school system should reduce spending.
“We want to move forward purposefully and slowly so that any decisions we would make would be a net benefit to students,” said Erika Giampietro, a special assistant to the superintendent and an advisory committee member. “Certainly there are a lot of hard trade-offs involved in these decisions.”
Formulating a long-term financial plan is an unusual move for public school systems. Typically, school systems handle budget cuts annually when the revenue and expenditure outlooks are relatively clear.
But the annual budget cutting in Boston has been testing the patience of students, parents, and teachers, who have criticized the growing number of program and staffing cuts and held several protests earlier this year.
Complicating matters for Boston has been declining enrollment in the upper grades that has been stretching students thin in middle and high school programs, making them more costly to run while also raising the specter of school closings, which many parents, students, and teachers oppose.
The financial picture in Boston could grow even tighter if voters approve a ballot measure Nov. 8 that would allow for the opening of more charter schools in Boston and across the state. This year Boston expects $135 million in per-student state aid to be redirected to charter schools.
Superintendent Tommy Chang said in a statement, “This report is a courageous step towards financial stability for our schools and deep investments in our students.”
But Richard Stutman, the Boston Teachers Union president and an advisory committee member, said he did not agree with most of the ideas.
“The one view they should have come in with and didn’t is that our schools need more resources,” Stutman said. “They thought inside a very narrow box — how to do more with less and be happy with it.”
Three of the costing-savings ideas in the report center around transportation:
■ Create more neighborhood schools, which would reduce the amount of required busing.
■ Adopt the state’s minimum busing requirements, which require school systems to bus elementary school students only if they live more than 2 miles away from a school. Boston currently buses elementary school students who live more than a mile away and sixth-graders who live more than a mile-and-a-half away, and it provides public transit passes to many students in grades 7-12.
■ Maximize other efficiencies, such as increasing the amount of time students spend on a bus or the distance between bus stops.
The report notes that if school closings are pursued, the school system would need to tie the move into its long-term facilities plan, which is under development. However, the report gave a potential projected timeline for closures, targeting it to begin in the next two or three years, which would put it after next year’s mayoral election.
School closings have been a polarizing issue in Boston over the past year. A consulting firm hired by the city had suggested that Boston could save upward of $85 million annually if the school system closed or consolidated up to 50 schools.
But city and school officials have insisted no decisions have been made. Special education cuts could involve ending services for students “who may receive support beyond what their disability requires,” such as one-on-one help from a classroom aid or door-to-door busing between home to school.
The report also included two ideas to generate funding, encouraging the city to advocate for more funding from the state and to request more flexibility for municipalities to raise revenue outside of the property tax limits set by Proposition 2½.
Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a watchdog funded by nonprofits and businesses, said the report was long overdue.
“I think there is no question work needs to be done on transportation and school facilities,” said Tyler, an advisory committee member.
A series of community forums is planned. The advisory committee will then present an update to the School Committee in February and some of the resulting measures could beput into the next budget.