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Opinion | Farah Stockman

A ‘starving’ school system?

For months now, we’ve been hearing about schools losing vital programs due to budget cuts: The Jeremiah Burke High School might be saying “adios” to its Spanish teacher. AP World History might be history at Boston Community Leadership Academy.

For the record, these cuts are painful and real. I hope they get reversed.

But let’s be honest: While individual schools face cuts, the school system itself has more cash than ever. That might be surprising to hear, since parents have been accusing the city of “starving” public schools as part of a dastardly plan to turn them into charters. “Enough is enough!” the flyers from Citizens for Public Schools proclaim. “We face $50 million in budgets cuts, over $140 million in just the last three years.’’

But the truth is that the budget for Boston Public Schools has risen every year, from $737 million in 2011 to more than $1 billion today. That’s a 25 percent increase, greater than the growth in the budgets of police, fire, and the city itself. If that’s what starving looks like, then Pablo Sandoval is dying of hunger.


Why has the budget grown so much? Does the district have more students? Nope. It has fewer. Did the school day get longer? Not really. Only 16 schools have an extended day, too few to rack up that kind of cost. Did those pesky charter schools add a quarter billion to the budget? Nope. About 70 percent of the increase comes from rising personnel costs, according to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

Before Boston teachers renegotiated their contract in 2010, their average salary was about $79,415, according to state data. By 2014 it had risen to $91,800. Thanks to rewards for seniority and education credits, about 40 percent of all full-time teachers in Boston make over $100,000 a year. Last year, a librarian at Trotter Elementary School earned $111,845. A swimming instructor at Blackstone Elementary School made $114,166. A social worker at Edwards Middle School made $119,523. A printing instructor and soccer coach at Madison Park High School made $122,880. A curriculum specialist at Urban Science Academy made $133,218. A guidance counselor at Timilty Middle School brought home $141,761.


If that’s what starving looks like, where do I sign up?

Don’t get me wrong. Teachers deserve to be paid well. Teaching, if it’s done right, can be an all-consuming, heart-rending, and profoundly difficult job. Teachers spend their own money to buy the tools of their trade. And they hold the future of our country in their hands.

Yet can’t we say the same of Navy Seals, who fight for our country in war zones? How many of them make six figures? Very few. Most make under $60,000.

If teachers earn that much, principals must earn even more. A list of city salaries shows 50 elementary school principals who earned more than $115,000 last year. Remember that embattled headmaster of Boston Latin School? She earned $156,826. She also had five assistant headmasters working for her, who each earned more than $120,000.

The highest-paid headmaster was a 24-year veteran educator who leads the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers. She took home a whopping $162,378. I bet she works hard for her money. But then again, so does Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, who earns a mere $10,000 more — without a generous summer vacation.

Why does a city with a median income of $51,000 pay teachers more than affluent places like Newton, Milton, Cambridge? Boston teachers are among the highest paid in the state, and indeed, the entire country. One reason might be that the job is more demanding here. You’ve got to pay teachers well to get them to stay. I get that. But another reason might be that Boston is a union town. Unlike the rest of us, teachers — like policemen and firefighters — help elect the person who will set their future salary.


Teachers donated checks totaling $21,730 to Marty Walsh’s mayoral campaign. And the American Federation of Teachers spent $480,000 on a super PAC television ad that ran in the final days of the race, in a successful bid to defeat John Connolly, a pro-charter candidate.

Political clout tends to pay off in Boston. But the teachers union is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success. The salaries have gotten so high that the city finds them hard to sustain.

That’s one reason charter schools have become so attractive. Teachers at Boston’s charter schools earned an average salary of about $67,000 in 2014, while working longer hours and more school days per year than teachers in traditional public schools. Of course, charters burn through teachers much faster than a traditional public school. But you don’t have to negotiate with them for years to get an extra 40 minutes added to the school day.

Maybe that’s the hard truth at the core of this war between charters and traditional schools. Originally, charters were supposed to be experimental laboratories that tested methods that could be adopted by traditional schools. But their greatest innovation — teachers who are willing to work more for less — is something no union wants to replicate.


Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.