Boston is undergoing a "crisis" and the state needs to address longstanding shortages of state funding for local schools, Mayor Marty Walsh told business leaders on Monday, saying he was "disappointed" in the amount of funding Gov. Charlie Baker proposed in his budget.
"One of our biggest fiscal challenges that we can't wait to solve is our declining and underfunded state aid. We have issues there," Walsh told the New England Council, bemoaning what he said were shortfalls in the state's Chapter 70 education funding and charter school reimbursements. He said, "I don't like to talk publicly about my differences with the state, but this is too important because we're at a crisis here in the city."
The mayor, a Democrat who is a political ally of the Republican governor, said he was "disappointed" that Baker's budget proposal made "no changes in Chapter 70 and no changes in the charter school reimbursement line item."
"There's other cities and towns in the same predicament that we are," Walsh told reporters.
Baker in January offered a $40.9 billion fiscal 2019 budget that calls for a general local aid increase of $37.2 million and an almost $119 million hike in education aid. The local aid amounts "reaffirm our commitment to serving as a reliable partner to cities and towns across the Commonwealth," Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito has said.
Baker has boosted general local aid in lockstep with growing state revenues, but education aid from the state to cities and towns has not increased at the same pace as state tax collections.
The criticism is apolitical, according to Walsh.
"It has nothing to do with Election Day. It's not against the governor either. It's about the budget, about the education part of the budget. This has nothing to do with politics. The governor's a friend," Walsh told reporters.
The mayor told WGBH's Boston Public Radio last week that he would support the Democrats' nominee in the gubernatorial election this fall when Baker is seeking a second term.
The governor's budget is the first proposal in the process of developing a spending plan for fiscal 2019, and Baker said he is open to discussion about the appropriate funding level while touting education investments he has backed.
"We're the only administration that's ever filed a budget above and beyond the Chapter 70 requirements. We filed additional money last year for technology, we filed additional money this year for health insurance costs and we made a proposal a couple of years ago to change the charter school formula, which the Legislature didn't adopt," Baker said Monday when asked about Walsh's criticisms. He said, "I think it's fair to say that we're open to conversations on all of those issues and we wouldn't have submitted the budget documents that we did submit over the past couple of year on these if we weren't."
State support for education is a perennial topic of debate. While some on Beacon Hill point to steady increases in education aid as reflective of progress and a true partnership, others say state funding levels have not kept pace with inflation and are failing to meet the changing needs in local districts.
On its website, the City of Boston says net state aid, or gross state aid minus state assessments, has been "trending down steeply" since fiscal 2002.
"State aid has been reduced substantially over the course of the last two recessions. Since FY02, net state aid (defined as state aid revenues less state assessments) to the City has been reduced by over $252 million or 59%. The City lost approximately $79 million between FY03 and FY05, gained approximately $16 million between FY06 and FY08," according to the city.
Lawmakers have kept in place the basic structure of local education funding despite a Foundation Budget Review Commission report in November 2015 that found the formula underestimates the cost of education by $1 billion to $2 billion per year.
The governor's proposed Chapter 70 school aid is "just plain inadequate for the job," Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, said after Baker's State of the State address. Baker has proposed spending a total of $4.8 billion on local education aid in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr called Baker's local aid numbers "a good start" and said he hoped to see the Senate increase the funding in its budget.
Tarr said his "more immediate concern" is addressing a gap this fiscal year in special education reimbursements to school districts. The Gloucester Republican raised that issue on the Senate floor last week, saying the difference between budgeted money and actual costs had the potential to be "destabilizing" for districts and he hoped it would be addressed as soon as possible.
"It's my expectation that if we do not see that in the next supplemental budget as it comes to the Senate, that I and others will be offering an amendment to try to increase that number," Tarr said Monday.
Other cities and towns envy Boston's economic muscle, but the city has a spottier track record on educating children who live within its borders.
Speaking before the region's business community, Walsh highlighted progress, but said the city urgently needs to improve its schools.
"We can't go another generation of not turning our district around," Walsh said. "If you look what's happened in the past four years, we have some wins. We have the highest graduation rate in the history of Boston – 76 percent. We can celebrate on one side. On the other side, we have 24 percent of our kids dropping out of school. That's not a celebration. We have more level one and level two schools than any other period in the history of our city. We can celebrate about that. But we still got a third of our schools that are level three, level four that are not the top. We can't celebrate about that."
Colin A. Young and Katie Lannan contributed reporting.