Boston’s Budget Blues

Cuts hurt kidsThe Parent Imperfect joined about 65 other hearty souls at last night’s public school budget hearing at the Hyde Park Educational Complex. BPS proposes filling a “sixty million dollar hole” in the school budget with 89 teachers, 109 paras, 26 administrators, a whole adult ed program and lots of yellow school buses. Sixty million makes for a big hole. No one who dragged themselves out of the house last night did so to express their support for the cuts.

School Committee Chair, Michael O’Neill made a valiant effort to lighten things up a bit in his welcoming remarks, but few attendees were in that kind of mood. A senior financial officer of the BPS went through the now familiar slides. Only through a combination of pink slips, program cuts and transportation service changes could the District balance this year’s budget. If the draft budget presented last night became a reality today, 223 people would lose their jobs, Boston’s unique adult education program would all but disappear and middle school students eligible for transportation would be on MBTA buses, instead of yellow school buses.

Yellow busesAll of these cuts would be necessary, despite a decision by Mayor Walsh to increase City government outlays for the School Department by 3.8%, while asking all other departments to take a 1% cut. The combination of ordinary cost increases, drastic declines in State and Federal support and contract-mandated salary increases had created a budget hole much deeper than what the City could fill.

Upon hearing the news, sixteen members of the audience paraded to the microphones to say, “don’t do it!” They included parents from the BTU School, the Roosevelt, the Philbrick, the Mendell, the Curley and the Lyndon, all schools facing the loss of teachers and valuable programs. Teachers and students of the Adult Education Center spoke eloquently of its importance in their lives, and the members of one class came to the meeting together for a “lesson in democracy.” A leader of Boston’s Special Education Parents’ Advisory Council spoke, as did Tim McCarthy, the City Councillor from Hyde Park who committed himself to fight on the floor of the City Council to avoid cuts to schools now moving in the right direction. Most in the room stood as others spoke, showing that they weren’t there just to speak for their issue.

One parent from West Roxbury cut to the chase quite nicely. “In two weeks of looking at this, I’ve discovered that the real solutions are two: Chapter 70 allocations and charter reimbursements. If I have figured this out in two weeks, you certainly can, too.”

State support downShe was pointing to the real fact that the current State budget limits spending on public education through Chapter 70 and that the formula for allocation this money has been changed in ways that work for some smaller cities, but definitely work against Boston. She was also pointing to the fact the $85 million in Chapter 70 money goes directly to charter schools. The Legislature is supposed to reimburse part of this through a separate appropriation, but they’ve been hedging on that in recent years, and not even this inadequate reimbursement has happened yet this year.

She’s right on about the immediate pressure points, but I hope we can effectively advocate with State officials without losing our conversation about how the BPS is making decisions about the money that is in the pot now.

As the meeting ground to a close, the Chair spoke directly about his own resistance to cutting an Adult Education program that has existed for over 100 years. He also said that he was ready to “join forces” with parent groups and other advocates to go to the State House to ask for more money.

Parent groups in the room seemed ready to join forces with the School Committee to advocate for additional State funds, but they also seemed unhappy with a lack of transparency in how budget decisions are being made in the District as well as with the content of many of the decisions concerning the allocation of existing funds. Joining forces will only work if all are interested in an open partnership, and I still have questions about the District’s openness about its decisions.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks. The School Committee must pass a balanced budget in three weeks, or the scene shifts to the City Council, where a knock down, drag out awaits a very new Council. Very soon, something has to give.

About these ads

14 Comments

Filed under Boston Public Schools

14 responses to “Boston’s Budget Blues

  1. Laura

    Thanks for reporting on this meeting! It’s good to hear that the point about charter school reimbursements was made publicly. If the drop in federal/state funds that’s projected is tied to declines in BPS enrollment (which may be an over-simplified explanation — or maybe not) why is enrollment in the public schools declining?

  2. Thanks, Laura. The point about reimbursements was a good one, but there was relatively little mention of charters, which are a huge source of the decline in Chapter 70 funds. The charter school population is increasing, but I’m not sure BPS enrollment is declining. I don’t know for sure. Last year, the BPS forecast major growth, which never happened. As a result, a “correction” is needed, which is part of the problem this year. I’ve been hoping that someone would say how they managed to get it so wrong, and what they are doing to make sure that this year’s projections are better. Several people have mentioned (including someone last night) that the BPS needs to start registering kids earlier so that they have a better idea of real numbers at budget time, but no answer on that.

  3. Dear PI,thanks for posting this. You did a great job of reporting the meeting and explaining the situation. Here’s hoping that the state comes through with some more support for BPS.

    • And thank you, Armand, for your kind comment. There is more to say about how BPS is managing the budget and why there is such a crisis, but this is a start. Unfortunately, it will all happen very quickly from here.

  4. Ian

    I posted this comment to a post on another blog that unfortunately does not moderate or respond to anything but absolute agreement, so I thought I might try here…

    I am not a supporter of increasing charter schools, for other reasons, but I don’t really get the complaint that charters are responsible for the budget problems due to some trickiness with the way the money flows.

    My understanding from this page (http://www.bostonpublicschools.org/budget) is that state aid for BPS is roughly $100 million a year, which is roughly $1,500 per student (there are roughly 57k BPS + 7K Charter school students in Boston). The other $900 million of the BPS total budget comes from Boston tax revenue, not the state.

    If I do a back of the envelope calculation of the BPS per child budget it looks like this (using roundish numbers for simplicity).

    Total budget $1 billion for 65k students or $15,300 per student (of which $1,500 comes from the state).

    For the BPS students Boston spends $900 million educating 57k students or roughly $15,700 per student.

    For the Charters Boston spends $100 million educating 7k students or roughly $14,200 per student.

    Obviously I am rounding things off a bit here, but I don’t see where Boston is spending more money per charter school student then per BPS student.

    The biggest problems I have with charter schools are their ability to kick out and select students to inflate their test scores, but I don’t know that there is anything tricky going on with the money. The whole idea of charter schools was that the city pays them a similar amount as what it costs them to educate the students and the charters do it rather than BPS, that seems to me to be exactly what is going on.
    I think the bigger problem with these budget cuts is how the BPS allocates them. I don’t know why full and/or popular BPS schools are seeing budget cuts. If the charter school students are elsewhere then those seats should be empty and the empty seats should save money by shrinking or closing schools with empty seats. But enrollment at my child’s school is not going down, so it seems like funds should not be cut, if the money is supposed to be following the student.

    • Thanks for this, Iain. This is a big question that I can’t respond to now, but I will respond when I’m not supposed to be in my day job. Maybe someone else will take a whack at it in the meantime.

      • OK…I don’t know if I can do this here, but let’s try.

        I have heard people that I respect argue passionately that there is a budgetary manipulation that provides charters with more money than the BPS receives for its own students. I have always meant to look into this, but I haven’t. I certainly believe it is possible, but I can’t prove it….maybe someday.

        What I believe is that, even if the charter rake-off formula doesn’t shaft the BPS, the microeconomics do. Here’s how. Let’s say that Iain City, Iowa has fifteen schools in it and someone decides to start a charter. Just to be easy, the charter begins with 60 students so that, on average, four students go from each of the 15 Iain City Public Schools to that charter. Being Iain City, all the kids are the same in the sense that no one is learning English and no one has any special educational needs (pure fantasy). Then the charter gets sixty times the calculated cost per pupil, and they’re off and running. Can each of the 15 schools then cut their costs by four times the per pupil cost? No, even in the world of all things being equal, they can’t. They can cut some costs, but very few of the schools will be able to cut the amount that they lost to the new charter. Their fixed costs will remain fixed and variable costs won’t go down enough to compensate.

        In year one, this is no big deal. They adjust. But by year 12, when there are now six charters with a total of 1125 kids, the ability of the public schools to cover their costs has been seriously degraded. Boston has reached the place where the difference between the cost savings of having the charters education 6000+ and what they lose to the charters in the budget has become a big deal. They’ve cut staff and learned to do things in new ways, but the continued hemorrhaging of students and resources finally gets to them. They are also trapped in a bureaucratic model that is very hard to escape.

        And then you have the fact that the BPS has to bus the charter students, and the fact that the BPS is educating more ELLs than the charters, and that the BPS is educating more children with special needs than the charters and that the children with higher level special needs are concentrated in the BPS, not the charters and that the private money is going to the charters…and…and…I don’t think the back of your envelope has enough space to take the microeconomics into account.

        I believe that there comes a tipping point in this sort of thing when the degradation of the old system leaves it unable to perform its most basic functions, and the wheels begin to come off. Boston doesn’t seem to be near that yet, but these repeated service-cutting exercises suggest to me that we are moving in the wrong direction. And some U.S. cities do seem to be approaching that tipping point. I hope we never get there..

        World’s longest and most rambling comment…sorry.

  5. Thank you very much for posting this excellent summary [along with all of the other incredibly informative and excellent info you share! My oldest child is in the exam school process and I've taken much solace from your posts on that issue. :) ].

    I’m a Curley parent, and we’ve organized a citywide group of BPS parents to work on the budget issue in a big picture, collaborative way. We’ve got about 20 schools involved, and a number of our parent members are also part of other advocacy groups. We’ve begun having meetings with city councilors, the Mayor’s office, state reps, BPS officials, and School Committee members, talking about both individual school issues and the bigger issue that the entire BPS pie must be made larger. So far we are getting a good response, in part, we think, due to the fact that we are just regular parents getting together and really collaborate on their own for improvement for ALL schools, not just our own schools. If anyone would like to join our list-serve, it’s at https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/bps-parents-budget – just let us know your name and your kids’ school. There is a lot of very detailed discussion about Chapter 70, WSF, enrollment data, and all other topics that are budget-related.

    The Curley has also gotten an automated email campaign going, as do a number of of our fellow schools (see ours here: http://www.curleyk8.com/2014/03/email-politicians-now-fight-the-budget-cuts/).

    Next upcoming events for this group of parent will be a meeting with BSC member Michael Loconto tonight, and State Rep Jeff Sanchez next week. We will continue to appear at each BSC meeting and deliver a consistent message that pitting the schools against each other for an inadequate pool of money cannot be the approach, and that the BSC needs to take an advocacy role rather than just accepting whatever budget they are handed.

    The BPS has so much to offer, and it is a crazy thing that we live in one of the richest cities in the world yet are not adequately funding our schools.

    Carrie Fletcher (carrie.fletcher@gmail.com)

    • Now…that’s a comment! Thanks for your kind words. I wish you luck with the exam school thing. For better or worse, the soul searching continues well past the decision letter (as you have read).

      I will definitely make use of the link to the Curley campaign, and hope others will, too. The solidarity of the parent group you have helped build has been incredibly inspiring. I hope it will continue as the pressure builds toward the conclusion of this. If parents start to argue only for resources for their wonderful school, at the expense of those other “less-deserving” schools, the whole thing will go south very quickly. The unified voice is the only thing that can change the equation in the way it needs to be changed. Thanks for all of your work! So far, you have gotten the message just right.

  6. Ian

    First of all, I appreciate the logic of your micro argument, it does make sense that if all the students are in one system you would have lower per student costs as fixed costs are harder to push down. However, I guess it still leaves open the question of weather this BPS screwing budget trickery exists that many people seem to be quite certain about. It is very mature of you to admit that you do not know, I do not know for sure either, but I cannot find any proof of it.

    I will say this too, the one thing with your micro argument that actually is not 100% comparable to Boston is that we have a lotto, so if 4 kids leave each school you actually can just categorically eliminate 1 kindergarden class at 2 of the schools and reassign the others that would have gone there elsewhere. So you actually can eliminate whole classes and lower costs even if only a few kids leave per school.

    Regardless, the point I am trying to make here in reality is that it seems like most peoples knee-jerk reaction to this situation is to lash out at the charter funding system or changes to state aid, but I wonder if we should be looking more at the wisdom of how BPS is spending the money that it does have. A lot of you guys have been in this game a lot longer then I have, so I hope that this is a sound strategy, but I am not sure if I really believe some of the arguments that we are using.

    As far as the charter deal, as I said above I just don’t see that much evidence of it. As for state aid, I saw an interesting description of how basically it is calculated via taking the base budget (adjusted for demographics and high-need) and comparing that to the cities ability to pay (tax base). Boston spends about 17.5k per student according to the data here: http://www.doe.mass.edu/finance/statistics/ppx13.html, while a lot of other cities that have much worse tax bases and similarly challenging student populations are spending between 11k and 14k. It is really fair for us to be trying to push the state for money to raise our 17.5k at the expense of other municipalities that are actually in a much more challenging revenue position and spending a lot less?

    The one example of the BPS spending in a totally dumb way that I just happen to be close to is the cutting of K1 SEI and K2 classes at Curley. Admittedly this just one small thing in a large system, but it is what I happen to be invested in and it is what makes me question weather BPS is spending its money wisely. Those K seats at Curley have a large waitlist every year. If they are not cut they will almost certainly fill up immediately. Now if BPS cuts that K2 room and puts the 22 K2 kids that should have gone there in a low performing school one of two things will happen to them. If they are middle class they will most likely leave town. If they are low income then they will probably go to that school and be denied the opportunity to go to a higher performing school. The easiest way to get the most families to stay in Boston and the most kids of all backgrounds attending higher performing schools is to create more seats at the higher performing school. So it drives me crazy BPS is not going to keep a class that a bunch of people want to go to at a school that has the physical space for the class (at least according to the docs I have read).

    If BPS is doing something as dumb as this, which seems intended to cause the most pain possible rather then the least, how many other popular programs are being cut, and where is that money going anyway? I remember reading in the Globe a while back that there are 3000 empty high school seats in Boston. I have not read anything in this budget addressing where there might be opportunity to cut there, rather then in oversubscribed early education programs. Actually, looking at some of the spreadsheets in the budget it appears that K gets the most cuts.

    In a perfect world yes, the state would pony up the money to mean that no cuts are necessary, but I guess I think more realistically there are going to be cuts sometimes, especially when enrollment is not going up (which is probably inevitable due to the city getting too expensive for large families). In that context it is probably more realistic and critical that BPS cut smartly, which I don’t have that much faith they are doing.

    BTW – One other thing, its “Ian” not “Iain”

  7. Harneen

    Thanks Parent Imperfect and to the city wide parent group working on the budget. I have not been able to attend any of the meetings but as a member of Quest and someone who sits on the state Board of Ed and as.BPS parent I appreciate all the advocacy.

    I have a couple of responses to this train. The issue PI raises about the impact of Charters on the sending Districts budget is absolutely correct. We hear it from Districts all over the state. Yes, theoretically BPS could cut a K classroom to adjust for the 2-4 kids per school who end up at a charter. But the District is still paying for a full bus to that school, for heat and infrastructure costs to keep the school open, for a Principal, lunch room operation, art, gym and science teacher (we hope), etc etc. What we see around the state and at BPS is that the impact of charters pulling some kids at a time over multiple years is a slow bleed on the sending Districts operations, As Districts try to reduce costs over time to adjust to the decreasing revenue they are continually making cuts. Which is where we are with BPS. Over time what is left are mandatory expenses and all the ‘extras’ disappear.

    In terms of the overall state budget, i agree the legislature is not going to give Boston more money for public education without also giving more money across the board, you are right that we are far from the poorest District (Lawrence) in the state. Over the years there has been a push from some groups to have a commission recalculate what it actually costs to educate a child in MA. The current foundation formula which determines chapter 70 money was calculated years ago, and is out of date. What I have heard is that folks are concerned that if they actually cost out the real dollar amount of educating kids today the figure would be so high that there would not be the political will to find/raise the resources to fund it, so no one wants to do it.

    I think people are focused now on fully funding the charter reimbursement line item because that is a more doable number. But folks need to realize that any effort to raise the cap will continue to keep BPS in a downward spiral.

  8. Thanks, Harneen. We need MORE people with your views making decisions about education in MA. Your last point about political will is the big one. Right now, in liberal Massachusetts, there is more political will to fund charter schools (and prisons) than public schools. The failures of public education have contributed to this, but so, too, have the political drift toward the “market” and the “private” in this country. If we believe quality education is a human right, then no institution other than the public schools can hope to provide “Quality Education for Every Student.”

  9. Ian

    I think we are all on the same page here about why we should not be raising the charter cap. I agree that it drains resources from the public school system. The point I was more making was that I don’t find the actual implementation of the funding system to be unfair, throwing out the question of weather there should be charters at all in the first place.

    It does seem like people are making progress with these arguments however, so that is great, I am glad they seem to be getting traction. I guess I just hope that whatever the resolution is of the money situation at the state level there are also some hard questions asked about where the money is going inside of BPS.

    After all, the best way to reduce the pressure to open more charter schools and raise that cap is to get more people in quality BPS schools. I hope the BPS administration appreciates this.

  10. I couldn’t agree more with you, Ian, and I’m very impressed with the work that you and others are doing to shine light on what is happening with the money inside the BPS. I am definitely with you on that.

    I hope you saw all the comments on today’s article in The Globe. In one of those comments, someone lays out the argument on the overpayment to charters. As I’ve said, I can believe this argument, but I’m not really sure where the numbers are coming from.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s