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City Council votes down Walsh budget

Schools, homeless need more, they say

Jule Pattison-Gordon
City Council votes down Walsh budget
City Councilor Ayanna Pressley called Mayor Walsh’s budget proposal “unacceptable.”

City councilors unanimously rejected Mayor Martin Walsh’s budget proposal last week. Several councilors explained their votes, saying that as it stands, the budget falls short of meeting the needs of residents, especially public school students and the homeless.

“Right now [the budget] is unacceptable,” said City Councilor Ayanna Pressley.

With the rejection vote passing, the mayor now has the opportunity to make revisions, taking into account the councilors’ feedback, and submit a new version for the council to reconsider.

On Monday, Walsh announced plans to add approximately $5 million in funding for BPS and to resubmit the budget proposal next week.

Schools’ shortfall

Prior to Monday’s announcement, Walsh submitted a $2.98 billion budget to the city council. While this represented a 1.3 increase in school spending, many Boston Public School advocates charged that it did not keep up with rising costs and did not match the city’s 4 percent overall budget increase.

Over the past months, BPS students, parents and other advocates have underscored their concerns over predicted budget shortfalls with public demonstrations and other measures.

Speaking at the hearing, City Councilor Tito Jackson, chair of the Committee on Education, said the mayor’s proposal would leave BPS underfunded by $31 to $38 million.

“We should hold the administration to account and understand that this cut would plunge our Boston public schools — the oldest public schools in America — into a downward spiral that we haven’t seen in the past,” he said.

Pressley called for an increase over what is provided in the budget proposal to support special education students transitioning out of high school, early learning centers and inclusion models.

“BPS also has work to do when it comes to our special education students transitioning, and there is room for improvement on our inclusion model, which is why these cuts belie reason, impact that population disproportionately and are especially difficult to swallow,” Pressley said.

City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, vice chair of the Committee on Education, added her voice to the call for more support, including providing all BPS students with access to a nurse and librarian. She also suggested that more efficient use and understanding of resources could help reduce shortages.

“We don’t use our scarce resources efficiently,” she said. “It should not be a struggle to determine how many children take the school buses we pay millions of dollars for.”

Jackson said the proposed budget weighs especially hard on students with trauma and autism, whose funding, would be cut by eight percent and 21 percent respectively, and Pressley called for all schools to have trauma-trained nurses. As evidence of the real and pressing need for trauma services, Jackson cited an incident in which children walked passed a dead body on the way to school. Word later came that even as the hearing was held, a shooting took place outside the Jeremiah Burke School, killing one student and injuring three people.

$5 million more to BPS

This Monday, Walsh issued a blog post announcing plans to add another $4.7 million to the budget, to be directed toward various BPS projects and planning efforts.

The largest allotments is $1.2 million to expand fourth grade rigorous coursework, to be offered in 13 schools ($1.2 million) — a pilot program Superintendent Tommy Chang had advocated — followed by $1 million to pave the way for bringing extended learning time to 40 more schools over the next few years. The $1 million will be directed toward logistical and instructional planning for this project.

Walsh also directs an additional $230,000 to city’s early learning and early education center programs, which underwent cuts in his earlier proposal.

Other portions of the $4.7 million go toward analysis and efforts involving safety and operational efficiency, language translation of special education individualized education plan documents, exploration of potential dual language program financing, high school redesign and a system to track data on BPS transportation, allowing for changes such as more efficient use bus routing.

Jackson issued a press release that same day stating that the increase does not go far enough.

Homeless and health

Enhancing efforts to combat homelessness was a major concern aired at the council hearing by Essaibi-George, who also serves as chair of the Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery.

Essaibi-George said greater attention needs to be paid to serving the homeless students currently in BPS — approximately 4,000 children — as well as to improving conditions for homeless families. Too often, shelters do not serve as temporary refuges but as primary residences for months-long periods, she said. Essaibi-George called both for significant investment into improving shelter conditions, including expandied access to fiber optic networks, and for further efforts to reduce barriers to acquiring permanent housing.

Pressley also said the current budget’s three percent reduction in community health center funding is too deep a cut to assign to an already-strapped resource.

“I remain concerned about a three percent cut to our health centers. This already is an overworked, over-utilized, underfunded asset for our city and our neighborhoods,” Pressley said.

Points of praise

Councilors also took a moment to voice support for aspects of the budget. Pressley praised the funding provided for parks and recreation, EMS funding and better accounting for police and fire overtime. Essaibi-George noted positive efforts around fighting substance abuse and said the budget proposal reflected the mayor’s commitment to ending chronic homelessness, but called for efforts to go further.

Back to the mayor

City Councilor Mark Ciommo, chair of the Committee on Ways and Means, which was assigned to provide feedback on the budget, urged other councilors to reject it without prejudice. He said his opinion was shaped by public hearings and submitted feedback.

All councilors complied with this recommendation to reject, returning the budget to the mayor for revision and resubmission. In his June 13 blog post, Walsh announced plans to resubmit a budget proposal to the city council on Monday June 20.

If the council does not approve a budget by the next fiscal year — which starts on July 1 — city departments will receive the same funding that they were allotted this fiscal year, dispersed in monthly installments, according to notes provided by Council President Michelle Wu.

Trust Act

During the hearing, which covered a range of topics, Councilor Josh Zakim called upon the council to officially reiterate its support to continue the Trust Act, which he filed and the city passed in 2014. The Act prevents city law enforcement from fulfilling federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to delay releasing people from custody who may be undocumented immigrants.

City Councilors voted unanimously to support this, with Councilors Andrea Campbell, Salvatore LaMattina, Bill Linehan, Pressley and Tito Jackson standing to speak on the act’s significance.

Several councilors said undocumented immigrants are more likely to experience than perpetrate crimes and that removing the Trust Act traps victims, especially those subject to domestic abuse, in dangerous situations out of fear of approaching law enforcement for help.

“This [move by Governor Charlie Baker] is fiscally irresponsible and dangerous,” Pressley said. “It is in fact profiling immigrants as criminals and predators when they are disproportionately victims that are too afraid to come forward and seek the justice that they deserve”

Campbell took the cry a step further, calling it not just racial profiling but racial “targeting.”

Councilors Zakim and Jackson also said these sorts of immigration issues are in federal purview and fulfilling ICE requests would be a misuse of local funds.