Color me skeptical. At last night’s Boston schools budget hearing, the big shots weren’t talking and ranting or begging students and parents may have been bellowing into the wilderness.
As City Councilor John Connolly so candidly described it, the details of the school budget are fungible. He is in his third year of the messiest job on Council, chair of the education committee. He admitted he didn’t get the big and small pictures on his first go and that he was too gentle and accommodating on the second. He thinks he may get it right this time. He’d better — this year and at least the next two are ones of triage.
We’re in the middle of a seven-week sprint. The Boston School Committee must present a balanced budget by the last Wednesday in March, working with figures their bank, that being the city, provides. At about a third of Boston’s budget, schools are the biggest chunk and get the most attention and hearings.
The City presents its budget to the Council, in theory for an up or down vote. Along the way in both processes, there are numerous public hearings and a few votes. Apparently, there’s much politicking and dickering.
Very Personal Experiences
I’ve been knocked around by the BPS for 25 years, from when our first of three sons headed to the Quincy School. He and his next brother were whittled into advanced work kids and jammed through BLS. The youngest is finishing BLA.
Along the way, my wife and I struggled mightily and frequently to get them in decent schools in a system that had from terrible to superb. We worked through the quirks and arrogance of numerous iterations of elected or appointed school committees and the often meaningless bluster and promises of yet another superintendent. Worst was dealing with Court Street to discover the current set of tricks required for the right school assignments. We had to move repeatedly in the early years for placement; no parent should ever have to do that.
We would hear how equitable assignments are, how this school was as good as that, and other lies. We would call Court Street for information, such as when assignments would be decided, only to get radically different dates, apparently on the whim of who was answering the phones.
We heard repeatedly from Court Street employees we knew as well as activist parents at one school or another that it was whom you knew. If you were involved in volunteering and the school parent council, you had an in for assignments. The Committee swore that was impossible, but we could see who got the assignments.
I earned my cynicism about the BPS system.
The schools and city budgets aren’t finalized. It’s likely that it will be the last week of June before deadline on the 30th that the nits and grits are done. The pot is fixed but who gets what is not.
In the meanwhile, two more school hearings are on tap. Monday, 3/15, at 6 p.m. at Madison Park High will be a public hearing like the one I went to yesterday at Boston English. Then on Wednesday, 3/24, at Court Street, at 5 p.m. will be another short one before the 6 p.m. Committee meeting.
There my skepticism fairly hoots. The 3/24 meeting is when the Committee votes on the budget. So tell me on a scale of 1,000 whether it is likely to change at all in the last hour, on say a level of 1 or 2 of that 1,0000. Horse feathers!
At his gutsy BLA parent-council presentation, Connolly was frank about the process. Several of the parents there noted how disparate the individual schools’ budgets and cuts were, hitting BLA much harder than many. Connolly said there were lots of tweaks within the amounts proposed in the seven-week process. He noted that the best chance a school’s parents had was to go to the hearings and testify, ideally en masse or a long sequence (think 25 parents).
He also told me that both district and at-large councilors form alliances and cut deals for various programs and schools. He didn’t say it, but likewise it sounds like a lot of action takes place in city-hall offices, coffee shops and small meetings.
That is the way of politics everywhere and we should not delude ourselves into thinking an academic tie changes that.
I recall much worse years ago in South Carolina. At the state house there, it was amusing to see the school groups making their class trips, back in the day when kids got civics classes. They’d come into a chamber or a combined session to see government in action. When there was a big bill with heavy political or economic consequences, they wanted to see orators at the best. Invariably, the bill would get a quick, often unanimous, vote one way or the other. The kids were stunned, leaving with their what-just-happened faces.
Truth be told, the bills were decided at backyard pig roasts and other private venues. It was a done deal before the gavel hit the brass plate on the wooden block.
This is moderately cleaner here and now, but not all that different from what I see. At the very least, the proposed budget, as well as the hearings and other key dates appear on the Committee site.
BPS Chief Financial Officer John (Jack) McDonough sprinted through a shortened version of the budget last evening. The previous day, he had gone into more detail at a presentation at the Committee’s regular meeting.
He’s not quite as flat in delivery as the cartoon Droopy, but McDonough has the stereotypical CPA’s monotone down pat. He also looks like he could be a mortician as well, which adds to the measured effect.
The facts include, as Connolly told the BLA group, the schools are screwed financially short and mid term. Yes, the city, state, federal and foundation contributions are down. Moreover, we have spent over half the federal stimulus money last fiscal year and will do the rest in FY2011 in the works.
This year, a balanced budget will only be within reach because of accommodations. At the state level, Gov. Deval Patrick pledged level funding for education. Likewise, Boston Mayor Tom Menino rolled back a demand that BPS cut over 1% of its budget (about $8.2 million) this year.
Apparently, the Committee is always a bit of a Henny Penny, squawking about falling skies and huge deficits…only to miraculously come up with a salvaged budget through great effort. Unfortunately, last year, that did catch up to numerous schools.
At BLA for example, they lost five teachers and one administrator. Among other fallout is the loss of the creative-writing program, a hallmark of the school, which has climbed to some of the nation’s best English test scores. It also means that 8th and 10th graders generally have two study (no classes, kiddies) periods out of seven classes a day — a lot less education for the bucks.
The big question now is when the Committee is going to shut down schools. Hyde Park Councilor Rob Consalvo said that would be too negative, too disruptive. Don’t count on that.
The Committee works with a figure of 4,500 “empty seats” in the system. At the same time, many classes are at their maximum of 30 students, a level a lot of teachers said is too high to do the job right. Yet, the idea is that each seat costs the BPS $4,000 a year, so moving folk around would solve that, and by implication necessarily require closing schools, canning staff and saving all around.
Last evening, Committee Member Mary Tamer said it was time to talk about closings and get the process in the works. Otherwise those on the dais didn’t say much meaningful.
Superintendent Carol Johnson directed a couple of speakers, students and parents, to some staff in the room, but made no policy statements nor answered any of the tricky questions presented. Her solution might address individual concern ( or not) but did not get into the hard topics or reveal any policy. That was a finger in the dike.
Committee Chair Gregory Groover likewise was very politic and close mouthed. He did do something meaningful, which those attending Monday’s hearing may get the benefit from — asked CFO McDonough to produce an addition cut at the proposed budget that shows what real people and plant impacts the cuts will have per school and line item.
Surprisingly after all the hoo-ha yesterday, the hearing was sparsely attended. The only other Committee member was Michael O’Neill. The only politicians represented were Councilor Chuck Turner, and staff from Rep. Liz Malia and Connolly. Perhaps 100 parents and students were in the audience.The large auditorium looked like a scattered room where people were afraid to catch flu from each other.
By the bye, the education committee comprises Chair Connolly, Vice Chair Turner, Consalvo, Ayanna Pressley, Steve Murphy, Sal LaMattina, and John Tobin. I figured all should have been there or had minions present.
More Equal than Others
Backing up what the BLA parents complained about last week, the detailed proposed budget by department and school showed those disparities. (I don’t see that online, but I picked up a copy at yesterday’s meeting.)
On the face of it, BLA parent council representative Christopher Carter nailed it. He said there was no rhyme or reason to the inequities among schools. Some have already been hit hard and will be again. Others are untouched or augmented.
Connolly noted in his presentation to BLA that some schools have a lot more ELL (English language learner) and SPED (special education) students, among other high-cost populations. Federal mandates mean more per-public costs there. However, to me, even accounting for that, some schools seem better plugged into the politics and finances than others.
Even after last year’s cuts, consider a sampling of those projected by percentage this time:
- Adams Elementary, plus 9%
- Blackstone Elementary, -5%
- BTU Pilot, plus 18%
- Hale Elementary, -6%
- Hennigan Elementary, -1%
- Mozart Elementary, level
- Murphy Elementary, -5%
- Boston Middle School Academy, -13%
- Boston Latin School, -1%
- Boston Latin Academy, -6%
- West Roxbury High, level
You can see from these and similar figures why many parents are angry and are skeptical about Committee claims of fairness and shared sacrifice.
In addition, even before getting to school-closing conversations, other budget measures include severely cutting custodial staff, deferring physical plant maintenance, and outsourcing food service. Already, administrators have forgone raises.
Another nasty wild card to hit the table will be teachers’ union deals. Collective bargaining will occur this summer, after the budget starts. That promises to be rougher than this budget process. Teachers can match Committee and superintendent whining note for note. This could be the battle of the drama queens, each singing that she only has the best interest of the students at heart.
I think back to Connolly. I sure don’t envy his chairing the education committee. Yet, I spoke with his policy director, Jamie Langowski, last evening before the hearing. She iterated what he had told me several times, he loves this. He understands how important education in general and this budgeting in crisis in particular are. He wants to be part of making it the best we can get under the circumstances. Good on him.
Cross-Post: This has gone over the rim. I’ll also put in on Marry in Massachusetts.