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Mayor Walsh’s campaign of misleading information about the BPS budget

John Lerner
Mayor Walsh’s campaign of misleading information about the BPS budget
The Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building.

Since January, Mayor Martin Walsh and his office have been making and repeating inaccurate and misleading statements to the media concerning Boston Public School’s fiscal year 2017 budget. As a parent of a BPS student who’s advocating for adequate funding for our public schools, I’m astounded by the half truths and false information being put forth by the mayor and his office.

The statements seem to be designed to justify the mayor’s proposed funding to BPS, an increase that falls around $30 million short of providing BPS with the resources necessary to provide the same level of service to students that it provided this year. The $30 million shortfall is compounded by the fact that it’s the third shortfall in three years. Every year that Walsh has been in office, BPS schools have had to make major cuts in what they can provide for our children.

The first constantly repeated and misleading statement the mayor makes to the press is that BPS will be receiving “an additional $13.5 million.” While that’s true, the problem is that everyone, the press included, is failing to ask what that really means? Is that a lot? It sounds like a lot. It’s not. It’s an increase of 1.35 percent. Walsh’s proposed municipal Boston budget for next year has an overall increase of 4 percent. If every city department’s budget were to go up equally, BPS was shorted by $27 million dollars. In other words, if BPS were given the same 4 percent increase the overall city budget received, BPS would be receiving a $40.5 million increase, not the mayor’s $13.5 million. The mayor’s implication that his FY17 budget is being generous to BPS is false. He’s not being generous. He’s underfunding our schools, year after year.

The second of the mayor’s talking points: “BPS has 93,000 seats for 57,000 students.” The 93,000 seats number comes from a report from McKinsey & Company — a $660,000 report that the mayor commissioned and allowed BPS the privilege of paying for. The McKinsey report has been questioned, challenged, quashed and discredited a number of times, in a number of ways, by a number of people, including the chair of the Boston School Committee.

In 2013 BPS produced it’s own capacity report and it stated that, yes, there is overcapacity at BPS, but only by 5,000 seats, not the 35,000 seats the McKinsey report claims. I would think that the huge variance between these two reports would have even Mayor Walsh questioning McKinsey, especially when it appears that McKinsey simply calculated the square footage of schools, including hallways and gymnasiums, and did some sort of “students per square foot” calculation that never looked at the actual classroom space available, and they did that for 126 schools. An additional note: according to the mayor’s own “Boston 2030” plans, Boston’s population is projected to grow by 91,000 in the next 13 years. Chances are that in a few years BPS will need more capacity, not less. Regardless, the statement that BPS has the capacity to serve 93,000 students would appear to be false, but that doesn’t stop the mayor from repeating it.

Third and fourth: On April 13th, Boston’s CFO David Sweeney was on WGBH’s Radio Boston talking about the BPS budget. Within the first two minutes, Sweeney made two misleading statements and one completely false statement:

  • “Over time, as a portion of the cities overall spending, education has increased now to a full 40 percent.” That’s true, but we’re not talking about what the city is spending on education, we’re talking about the BPS budget, which in the mayors’ proposed budget comes out to 34.6 percent of the city’s overall spending. Sweeney’s misleading implication was off by 5.4 percent, or $160.4 million, which Boston pays out to privately operated Commonwealth Charter Schools.
  • “BPS has the highest per pupil spending in the country.” That’s completely inaccurate. Look out your window. See Cambridge? Those students receive about $7,000 more — per student — than Boston’s students do, and that’s just the beginning of a long list of Massachusetts cities and towns that fund at higher levels than Boston. Many, enrolling students with much lower needs than Boston’s. Why do these cities and towns spend that much? Because they value education.
  • “The BPS budget is over one billion dollars.” Yes, the BPS budget is over one billion dollars, but what does that mean? As large as that number is, it’s a number that’s without context. It has no meaning. A true assessment of the FY17 BPS budget is its percent of Boston’s total budget. Again, 34.6 percent sounds like an awful lot when it’s just thrown out there, but when you take a look at what percentage of budgets other Massachusetts cities and towns spend on education, 34.6 percent is at the bottom of the heap. Using 2011 numbers (the only ones I can find that break municipal budgets down into percentages) 94.5 percent of Massachusetts municipalities spent a larger portion of their budget on K-12 education than Boston will next year. In 2011 the average municipality in Massachusetts spent 52 percent of their budget on education, and in 2011, Lexington, arguably the highest-performing school district in the United States, spent 58 percent of its budget on K-12 education.

So, as far as the BPS budget being over one billion dollars, true.

As far as that being some outrageous and unreasonable amount, absolutely false.

I don’t know what’s in the mayor’s head. I don’t know what he’s up to but I do know that this campaign of misinformation is harming my daughter’s, and 57,000 other BPS children’s, chance at receiving a good education. For the mayor to continually repeat misleading and untrue numbers, over and over, repeating the lies, is to me, unfathomable. The citizens, the press and the Boston City Council need to intervene and stop this incredibly harmful budget from being passed.

Roxbury resident John Lerner is the father of a 3rd grader enrolled in a BPS school.