School Whirlpools

March 4th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

CharybdisSelf-defensively, I avoid non-profit boards. Experience informs me they are the Charybdis, the crushing whirlpools of public life. In his goodhearted, youthful enthusiasm, Boston City Councilor John Connolly steers yet again, for the third time, through and past the whirlpool of the school budget.

Last evening, he was at the parent council  meeting at Boston Latin Academy, candidly answering those difficult questions about the bad, worse, worst money realities of our schools. He’s been through this twice in his first term as at-large councilor and chair of the education committee. He told me a couple of months ago that he was pleased to get the chair again. From here, it looks like the toughest, most demanding spot on the council.

After many years of serving on and chairing non-profit boards and committees, I had avoided the BLA council meetings. Such groups suck in and assimilate those who express even the mildest interest. Yet, yesterday I knew that John would discuss the schools’ budget and wanted to hear that.

John Connolly

As he has been every time I have heard him speaking publicly or one-to-one, John was straight ahead. (You can hear him on our schools in our Left Ahead! podcast from October.)

I’ll follow the school budget and post more on it here. A key message from last evening is that things were grim last year, will be worse this time (FY2011) and even worse for the next couple of years at least. He strongly urged parents who think their kids and schools are getting short shrift to speak up now during the budget hearings to have any chance of making the best of the situation.

Regular readers know I’ve been a Gov. Deval Patrick supporter from when he first ran for office. He likes to do the hard, progressive thing of going to the underlying problems and solutions. Yet he seemed disingenuous when he seemed to announce that schools funding was just fine in the new commonwealth budget, as in, “Provides a record high $4.048 billion in Chapter 70 funding, ensuring that no school district receives less funding than it did in FY10 and fully funding foundation.”

Of course, the unamusing joke here is that federal and local money are integral to the local schools’ funds. Moreover, the federal stimulus money was over half gone last fiscal year and will totally disappear in FY2011.

At a train of library tables, Connolly came into a frenzied group of perhaps 20 parents with Interim Headmaster Emilia Pastor. She had been long-term Headmaster Maria Garcia-Aaronson’s lieutenant before the latter retired last year.

Disclaimer: My youngest is a BLA student.

While keeping similar policies and making a few silly changes (like no posting of student notices on the brick interior walls), Pastor is favorably regarded and may take over the permanent position. At the meeting though, she was no dynamo, seeming to enjoy her long hair more than the discussions.

In fairness, those discussions were brutal and bristly though. John walked into a continuation of the big issue for the parents’ council — the inequity of funding. A couple of parents returned to numbers like $4,000-plus funding per BLA student per year, with some other schools getting nearly three times as much. Why and what can we do, they asked any and all.

It turns out that none of this, including funding formulae and numbers, was simple. While not defending city and school committee budget proposals, John  agreed that there were inequities. He noted that some of this results from the higher needs of special-education (SPED) and English language learner (ELL) non-native English speakers. After all, big cities invariably play the role of staging ground for immigrant and special-needs students.

Pastor previously noted that smaller school had larger nuts, such as fixed costs for minimal administration and maintenance. This pushes up the per-student costs.

However, there seemed no doubt to anyone that the effects of inequities fell more heavily on BLA than other schools. Last year, for example, the budget was down over 1%. That translated into, among other mandates, a requirement that each school in the system cut about $400 expenses per student.

Those around the table last night pointed out that for BLA with a $4,000+ share per student this was about 10% gross. That meant practically the loss of 5 teachers and 2 administrators. Pastor had set the stage by saying that two grades already had up to two studies per day out of seven classes as a result. In practical terms, the loss of one teacher means five fewer classes, which the school basically must replace with studies, thus less instruction. Also, the cuts meant that the school known for turning out great writers and concentrating on creative writing had to eliminate that program entirely. It had ranked at the top of the nation in English language skills and surely won’t now.

By the time Connolly arrived, the parents were stoked and related his budget summary to the unfairness of higher per-pupil schools. For example, one that had to cut $400 per student from $11,000 per-student per year would be far less hard hit in real terms.

After walking through the budget process (a future post here), John was blunt about their options. There would be fewer dollars in real and relative terms this year and next and next. He suggested those who wanted greater equity and the best for BLA attend the school-committee hearings on March 11 and 15 at English and Madison Park at 6 p.m. “If 25 BLA parents  (testify about the effects of the cuts), that’s the best chance you’ve got (of influencing the budget).

It is a fascinating zero-sum game today. The school committee huddles to produce its budget request. The mayor’s people produce a massive budget, which the city council gets on 4/14 this year. On paper at least, the city council votes it up or down by the end of 6/30.

The school committee holds several public hearings and appears up to 10 times before the city council to explain their proposals and rationales. Connolly told me that while in theory the mayor’s budget is fixed, there’s lots of concession and dickering in those two-plus months. While the council doesn’t have line-item power to delete or augment, councils banding together can have a big influence on individual lines and departments.

The schools represent the largest area of the budget — over one third. Of course it gets the most attention. Yet, it has been reduced year upon year. John made it plain that we can expect at least several more years of reductions, likely 1% or more this year on top of last budget’s drop.

He spooked the parents a bit by listing some of the proposals that have begun to appear in the local papers and city hall rumors. Each is a shocker to some constituency — think stopping free transportation for private and parochial students, dropping free T passes for high-school students, shrinking school walk zones to minimize bus costs, and shifting school capacities to equalize class sizes and reduce costs. He doesn’t know which of these will appear in the budget, but was sure these and others would be incendiary.

The schools have already give up and cut quite a bit, not without gamesmanship and theatrics.  Administrators and other have foregone raises for example. Yet, we have negotiations in the works for a new teacher’s contract, which won’t be finalized until after the budget passes. It’s a wild ride ahead, sure to leave many dissatisfied.

Oddly enough, John is not jaded nor exhausted. He’s into his third go at this. While he promises not to be as nice a guy as he was in previous budget processes, Connolly is up for another round in this most trying period.

I don’t envy him the job, particularly this year.

More posts on this to follow.

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