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OPINION | MARTIN J. WALSH AND TOMMY CHANG

The new challenges facing Boston Public Schools

Students at the UP School peek out from a school bus, August 2014, in Dorchester.
Students at the UP School peek out from a school bus, August 2014, in Dorchester. Essdras M Suarez/Staff/File 2014/Globe Staff

Boston is the birthplace of public education in America, and nearly four centuries later we remain a national leader. According to a report by the US Census Bureau, the Boston Public Schools invest more money per student than any of the 100 largest school districts in the nation. The BPS budget approved by the School Committee last week stands at $1.027 billion, and total education spending takes up more of our city budget than at any point in our history.

We are proud of this extraordinary and historic commitment. And we are dedicated to both growing it and putting it to more effective and equitable use for our students. That’s why we included a $13.5 million increase in the 2016-2017 budget. That figure will likely grow once we reach a new collective bargaining agreement with teachers. In addition, we are optimistic that the state will more fully fund charter school reimbursements called for by law. Our investment in the Boston Public Schools is more robust than ever.

This fact may come as news to those who have heard talk about cuts in the school budget. To be clear: We have never considered, nor proposed, reducing our financial commitment to Boston’s schools. Instead, we are investing in areas that increase equity and better serve student needs. These include 200 new prekindergarten seats; a data system to improve parent access to children’s special education plans; and 33 new classrooms at 18 schools.

These investments, combined with changing enrollments, required principals at some schools to plan for budget reductions. When we modified those impacts in response to community concerns, we also put on hold key items in our equity agenda, such as expanding access to advanced curriculum. We’re hopeful that state funding will allow us to proceed as planned.

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Students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers alike have the right to ask: Why, in such a well-funded system, does the budget process demand these hard choices? The answer lies in structural trends that have been building for decades and are now coming to a head.

Since 2008, while Boston has increased funding by $232 million, assessments for charter schools have grown by $103 million; our Chapter 70 state education aid has declined by $2 million; and labor costs have risen by $130 million. Meanwhile, 65 percent of our school buildings are now more than 75 years old.

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Our facilities, operations, transportation, and staffing systems were designed for generations past. Today’s students are fewer in number, but we serve their diverse needs in much more specialized and responsive ways. It is very difficult to grow these newer programs atop an obsolete infrastructure and an unsound fiscal foundation.

Without concerted action to reform this inefficient cost structure, the School Department will face increasingly difficult budgetary decisions every year. We must begin to tackle these challenges in earnest as a community.

This year’s budget conversation has been fragmented, pitting various needs against one another. The reality is, our challenges are deeply interwoven, so action in one area affects many others. That means long-term solutions must be comprehensive, and the route to finding them must be collaborative. We need unity now more than ever.

We have listened to students, parents, and teachers talk about their concerns and aspirations. We hear your voices, and we respect your passionate advocacy. We ask now that you bring this same passion to the systemic challenges we face. Let’s work together — in State House advocacy; collective bargaining; long-term financial planning; a 10-year building plan; and central office reforms — to set the Boston Public Schools on a strong and sustainable new course.

BPS is among the most successful urban districts in the nation, and we have continued to improve by many measures. But not all children are getting the opportunity to reach their potential. All of our proposals have been, and will remain, aimed at closing these gaps, and meeting every student’s needs. Hard choices still lie ahead. It’s imperative that we find common ground now, so that we can tackle them together, build on our progress, and give every child the excellent education they deserve.

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Martin J. Walsh is the mayor of Boston. Tommy Chang is superintendent of Boston Public Schools.