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BPS chief warns against ‘rat race’ of school closings, cuts

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang spoke at a forum hosted by The Boston Foundation on Thursday.
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang spoke at a forum hosted by The Boston Foundation on Thursday. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It’s been a difficult fiscal year for the Boston public school system, but Superintendent Tommy Chang is confident that 2017 will be different.

At a Thursday event hosted by the The Boston Foundation, Chang stressed the need to fix achievement gaps for students of color, English language learners, and students with special needs. But he added that long-term financial planning was necessary to avoid upheavals.

“We have got to get out of this rat race of closings and making cuts every single year,” he said.

Funds are allocated to individual public schools based on a few factors — the size of its population and the particular needs of each student, including grade levels, language skills, and household incomes.

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Chang, who became superintendent in 2015, faced a backlash in March of last year when his initial budget reduced funding for some children with special needs. Going forward, he said, he hopes to avoid upheaval in what is known as weighted student funding.

“Because of the long-term financial planning that we started a year ago, I’m confident that we’ll be able to go through this budgeting cycle with no sorts of cuts to student weights,” he said after the forum.

He acknowledged, however, that budgeting for public education in Boston is like walking a tightrope. A report from Boston Public Schools last year found that if the system did not make any changes, it could face deficits between $20 million and $25 million annually.

Other panelists at Thursday’s forum, including Roxbury Community College president Valerie Roberson and Bunker Hill Community College president Pam Eddinger, acknowledged a need for new sources of revenue and creative ways to save money.

Roberson pointed to solar and geothermal energy systems under construction at RCC, which she said she hopes will save the college $1 million annually in utility costs.

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RCC, she added, was facing millions of dollars in structural deficits when she became president in 2013, forcing her to enact cuts and layoffs.

“We feel like we’ve closed that . . . we’re done with cuts now,” she said.

Panelists also called for innovative ways to support nontraditional students, including vocational training, job-placement assistance, and careful consideration of outside factors.

“We need to be much more nuanced about a student’s set of challenges in the community and in their lives,” Eddinger said, adding that many students face problems with homelessness, transportation, and hunger. “Those things mean something.”


Jacey Fortin can be reached at jacey.fortin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JaceyFortin.