Budget woes clear way for debate on busing

With massive cuts looming overhead, everything is on the table in next year's Boston Public Schools budget, including the city's controversial busing plan.

Superintendent Carol Johnson presented her proposed budget to the School Committee Wednesday, just after the Reporter's press time. The plan is expected to include major cuts to administration and programs as the city faces an overall $140 million shortfall by some estimates. Schools will likely suffer numerous layoffs, with many teaching slots in jeopardy.

Last year's school budget was $833 million, about 35 percent of the city's $2.4 billion budget.

BPS Spokesperson Chris Horan did not provide specifics about cuts before the official budget presentation, but said the district would eliminate teaching positions as its last option.

The busing debate reopened on Sunday as a Boston Globe Op-Ed by Ted Landsmark called for an end to the plan as a way to reduce the more than $70 million BPS transportation budget and divert dollars to education.

"Nothing can be sacrosanct," said Horan. "We're asking everyone to think about it. Is it time to go even deeper?"

The 1970s court-ordered busing policy, which divides the city into three sections and allows parents a choice of schools within their zone, is intended to allow students an opportunity to attend more desirable schools outside their neighborhood.

Detractors point out the plan runs many buses far less than full on routes that travel long distances through rush hour traffic. BPS is also required by law to provide busing to some parochial and private school students, which some see as unfair.

Johnson pushed to modify the plan last fall as part of her district reorganization effort, but was met with resistance, particularly from now-embattled City Councilor Chuck Turner, recently charged with accepting a $1,000 bribe. Turner called her proposal to change the percentage of slots a school has reserved for walkers "discriminatory."

Johnson backed down and will save only an estimated $3.1 million next year with changes to bus routes.

At-Large City Councilor John Connolly, a former teacher, and now acting chair of the Council's Education Committee in Turner's absence, supports neighborhood schools and applauds proposals to reduce busing.

"I think we have to change the plan because this is about how we give the best education to every child," he said. "No one is trying to divide the city. It just seems we could better spend that money by directing it to the classroom."

Connolly said busing never gets a true open discussion because it is so emotionally charged and driven by political groups.

"Anytime you talk about school transportation, you are talking about Boston's painful past," he said. "But we must see if the current policy is hurting Boston's future. And I think it is. No one is talking about a system that gives a child only one choice for a school."

One possible change could double the number of zones and increasing preference for walkers, according to Connolly. Retooling the busing plan could potentially increase parental involvement and after-school program participation as well, with more students living closer to their schools.

Horan said the budget dilemma stems from the troubled economy and the decrease in revenue that brings, and the rising cost of salaries, benefits, food, energy and other expenses.

Some savings will be realized through the superintendent's reorganization plan approved last fall that closes and consolidates school next year. In addition, a plan to replace all lights with greener, low-energy bulbs could save a few million, but the numbers are slow to add up.

Because the state budget is not complete, Horan said BPS must estimate its funding and plan for the worst. Gov. Deval Patrick's budget keeps Chapter 70 school money level, though the schools also rely on local aid to the city, which was cut for the current fiscal year and is predicted to be cut even more for FY 2009.

Federal aid is also down, according to Horan, as is grant funding. Though it's estimated the state would receive hundreds of millions for education through the new stimulus bill being debated by Congress, BPS is not factoring the dollars into its budgeting.

The superintendent is proposing to cut central office administration budgets, asking department heads for 20 to 30 percent reductions. She also asked school principals to build budgets with percentage cuts based on a formula of enrollment, programming and grade level.

Johnson is freezing raises for her non-union leadership team and asked the unions to voluntarily accept the same, a policy backed by Mayor Thomas Menino. The district would save more than $30 million if the teachers agree.

"Clearly these cuts are very serious," said Horan. "But the superintendent is trying to figure out how we can continue to tackle some of her priorities including closing achievement gaps and reducing the drop-out rate."

Dorchester's Alicia Zipp is helping organize parents to fight for "intelligent responses" to the budget crisis. A rally was planned for this week's School Committee meeting.

"We think that education is one of the most important things in the budget, right up there with fire and police," she said. "The kids should not suffer for the legions of mistakes by the adults."

Zipp argues for increasing the size of the entire pie, not just the schools' slice of it. If that means raising taxes, she is for it.

Cathy Moylan is another concerned Dorchester parent. She opposes cuts to music and arts, programs that are often the first to go.

"Especially in a community such as Boston where many families can't afford to buy their children lessons, I would hope the administration would find other places to cut," she said. "I think arts and music help students become more fully evolved. Kids have all sorts of talents and if they aren't given the opportunity to explore them all, a lot of people will be shortchanged."

Even with creative thinking, schools are likely to suffer next year. Emily Cox, the principal of Mather Elementary School, the first public elementary school in the nation, said she's looking at a 16 percent cut. Her initial budget slashes 50 percent of supplies, but still requires eliminating 15 positions including four teachers.

"Right now, what we're doing is really focusing on bringing family members and staff together to develop action plans for outreach, fundraising and grants," she said.

Cox hopes to establish partnerships with the community to help cover lost supplies and bring in parents and other volunteers to monitor lunch and recess and provide extra reading support.

Class size will not be affected at the Mather, but education quality could suffer.

"It's going to dramatically affect our ability to sustain the high level of education we are providing our students," Cox said. "The effects are going to be devastating."

The School Committee will listen to the public's concerns in four hearings held in the neighborhoods across the city and deliberate over the next few weeks before deciding on a final budget. One hearing will be held in Dorchester at the McCormack Middle School at 315 Mt. Vernon Street on Columbia Point, Tuesday, Feb. 10 at 6 p.m.