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City Council OK’s Walsh’s new budget

BPS and operating budgets pass with 9-4, 12-1 votes

Jule Pattison-Gordon
City Council OK’s Walsh’s new budget
Josh Zakim said the budget was reasonable but contained disappointments.

The city council voted last Wednesday to pass the $2.98 billion revised budget proposed by Mayor Martin Walsh. The July 1 fiscal year deadline, then only two days away, loomed over the vote.

The council voted on the budget in separate parts. The most contentious of the votes involved the Boston Public Schools budget and followed upon months of high-profile advocacy by parents, students and teachers. While many councilors expressed disappointment and frustration with the BPS budget, it passed in a nine to four vote. Only Councilors Tito Jackson, Ayanna Pressley, Annissa Essaibi-George and Andrea Campbell opposed it, saying the cuts would harm children. Other councilors argued that there might be no better option, given limited revenue.

The general operating budget passed in a vote of twelve to one, with Jackson as the sole opposition. Among his critiques: the omission of a housing voucher program.

Councilor Bill Linehan said the city’s budget is unsustainably reliant on property taxes and that new revenue sources must be found or the following years’ budgets will bring more service cuts. Across the commonwealth, many municipalities increasingly are turning to the property tax — long a primary generator of revenue — to make their budgets as they experience a decline in state aid.

BPS budget

Walsh’s resubmitted budget directed $4.7 million of additional funding into new projects and planning for BPS. However it still included reductions in the allocations to students with social emotional needs and autism, and it did not fully restore cuts to early learning and early education centers. Several opposing councilors said the benefits of the increases did not outweigh the detriments of the accompanying cuts. Schools will be left without nurses and librarians, and children with trauma and special needs may not be adequately served, they said.

“What we have before us is a budget that expands the achievement gap,” Jackson, chair of the Committee on Education, said. “I believe it is unconscionable to support the school budget that will hurt and harm the Boston Public Schools yet again, year after year.”

Those who voted “yes” on the BPS budget cited concerns that there may not be more money available to add and no better budget forthcoming. Some advised focusing on identifying more effective spending strategies.

Councilor Josh Zakim said the mayor’s budgets presented reflected the reality of revenue limitations.

“[This is] a reasonable budget that makes use of our limited resources,” he said. “Unfortunately, we cannot write a blank check.”

Special ed and trauma

Funding for autistic students will drop by eight percent and for students with trauma by 21 percent under the budget proposal, Jackson said. Campbell cited the change to per pupil allocations as one of the main reasons she opposed it, and several Councilors Michael Flaherty and Sal LaMattina, who voted for the budget, said it was a serious concern as well.

The budget also means that not every school will be supplied with a nurse, Pressley said. This deficiency is a critical problem she said, arguing that children cannot learn effectively when they are struggling to cope with unaddressed needs such as hunger and emotional trauma, be that trauma from a tragedy such as the shooting at the Burke or a life disruption such as a divorce in the family.

Flaherty said he was pleased by the $4.7 million added to BPS in Walsh’ revised budget but that he recognized it was not enough.

Small cost fixes?

While Jackson said public schools face a $22 million to $28 million shortfall, Essaibi-George and Pressley said even small investments could be deeply impactful.

“For $600,000 we could have saved all the librarians being cut. For $300,000 we could put reading specialists in all the schools losing reading recovery programs” Essaibi-George said. “For $2.2 million, we could give all of those schools the support they need.”

She said political battles between elected officials had interrupted collaboration and distracted from finding practical solutions to the needs of the city’s children.

Sound bites and grandstanding got in the way of productive discussions,” she said.

Pressley said meeting the needs of trauma-impacted students is within the city’s reach.

“I’ve been asking for 20 more nurses, just 20 more nurses. I don’t think that’s a lot,” she said. “All the autonomy and fancy investments and rigor in the world are not going to improve outcomes if our students are not whole.”

Is there money?

Ciommo and Wu called the budget “fiscally responsible,” and Linehan said that the school budget has been rising at a rate that is untenable.

Individual schools’ budgets are derived based on projected enrollment numbers and presumptions of how much it costs to meet needs, such as providing special education services.

The current school budget provides an average of $20,000 per pupil, Linehan said.

“If every parent has $20,000 to educate their kid, they could do one hell of a job if they spent their money on education,” he said. Baker agreed that this seemed sufficient.

Linehan said he made his calculation by dividing the overall school budget by the number of students enrolled. This does not reflect that more funding is allocated to educate students with more intensive needs than for a student with standard needs. For instance, in the 2013-14 school year, BPS spent $21,140 more per pupil for a student with special education needs served in a substantially separate classroom than it did for a student with standard needs, according to information published by the BPS Communications Office.

Jackson argued that schools are facing cuts at a time when Boston’s economy is strong. Funds could be freed up from projects, he said, such as a proposed $15 million investment in the Northern Avenue Bridge and directed to BPS or other programs for youth and the homeless. (The Northern Avenue Bridge spending proposal passed later that meeting in a ten to three vote).

Meanwhile, Wu and Flaherty called for spending reforms.

“There are deep structural issues in Boston public schools that we need to address and need to reform,” Wu said.

Ineffective programs should be identified and their funding redirected into more impactful programs, Flaherty advised.

If the council did not reach a budget agreement by July 1, the city would enter fiscal year 2017 with the FY 16 budget provided in monthly installments.

O’Malley said voting “no” would mean the FY 16 budget went forth, “which would be catastrophic.”

Unclear strategy

Campbell and Pressley said they wanted greater clarity about the logic that guided the school department’s budgeting plans.

While the mayor’s budget provides for valuable initiatives such as expanding advanced work classes to more fourth grade students and providing more K1 seats, these come at too high a cost, Campbell said.

“No teacher, principal or parent I spoke to said, ‘Bring about these programs but cut programs we know work,” she told the Banner. “My question to BPS is, ‘Where did this strategy come from?’ ”

Pressley said that while BPS needs more funding, it also needs a cohesive view of its values and prioritizes to guide how the money is spent.

“The investments that are being made are very challenging to be celebrating because we are pairing those investments with divestments in other areas where we still need to improve,” she said.

Linehan, Frank Baker and Tim McCarthy framed their approval of the budget as indicators of support for Superintendent Tommy Chang and a way of giving him a chance to prove himself.

Wu also told councilors that passing a budget does not mean an end to work to improve schools.

Housing and health

The absence of a housing voucher program in the budget was raised as a concern by Zakim, chair of the Committee on Housing and Community Development, Jackson and Councilor Matt O’Malley.

“This [voucher program] is thoughtful, innovative and inexpensive when you think about the benefits,” O’Malley said.

Zakim said he was disappointed and asserted that the solution to the homelessness crisis rests in providing homes. Ultimately, though, he concluded that mayor and his team had done a “reasonable job” with the resources at hand.

Several councilors — Essaibi- George, Mark Ciommo and Michelle Wu — also praised the homelessness efforts that were funded, and Essaibi-George said going forward she will keep a focus on student and family homelessness.

Pressley continued to protest the cut to community health center funding, saying that they provide vital assistance in addressing racial health disparities.

Parks and EMTs

Investments in parks and in reductions in response times of emergency medical technicians received praise from many councilors. Campbell also highlighted the capping of police and fire overtime. Wu celebrated greater support for translation services and a $300,000 addition to the budget that will go toward establishing an office to assist with individuals’ reentry to society post-incarceration.