Commentary: Questions we should ask about Boston's latest budget for BPSD

For many years, Boston’s mayors and members of its City Council have increased the School Department’s budget on an annual basis as an indication of their support for public education. The money appropriated for schools marks an increase far greater than for most any other city department. 

Even as enrollment has declined and attendance remains an issue of concern, the superintendent, conforming to the precedent established by the many other superintendents who have been brought to Boston, continues to spend more dollars per capita than the great majority of school districts in Massachusetts. 

Money continues to flow into the system, even as Boston faces a state receivership of approximately 3 out of 10 of the district’s schools. By most every metric, many of the students in the Boston Public Schools are not faring well, yet more and more money keeps being spent on many things that are not improving the quality of their education. 

In light of the School Department’s significant budget growth—and the corresponding mediocre or disappointing progress of many BPS schools—the following are some urgent concerns.

1. The BPS population has declined by more than half in 50 years, yet the budget continues to increase annually. This year’s increase is approximately 3 percent.

2.  The BPS budget appears to provide millions of dollars to schools that are emptying out. These are probably schools which are underperforming/under a form of receivership. I don’t blame parents for not sending children to a school that does not function. Would it not make more sense to empty out those schools and redistribute the teachers and the students?

3. The BPS budget continues to provide more money per capita than the majority of other school districts in the Commonwealth. Something is awry when close to one-third of our schools under “underperforming/under receivership.” The number is approximately $23,500 per child. 

4. A cursory glance at the budget suggests the ratio of administrators to teachers is higher than it was 50 years ago. These are our tax dollars, as well as state and federal grants. Indeed, Boston taxpayers fill the School Department’s coffers annually—to the tune of $1.3 billion just in city funding. This does not include the approximately $400 million that the district anticipates receiving in federal education stimulus. 

5. Don’t we have our priorities reversed? In spite of tough economic conditions over the past year, the recommended budget for next fiscal year is based on an expected revenue increase of $142 million, which is 3.9 percent above the current fiscal year. Why not trim some of the costs that we find excessive and hire a tutor for every child? It is very clear, given the state receivership that resulted from an analysis of metrics, that a level of spending comparable to affluent suburbs, if misdirected and not targeted at student learning, does not guarantee successful schools. 

6. Is money being spent to retrofit classrooms that may never be used, to pay bus drivers who are not driving buses, and to pay contracts to those who cannot provide services, given that students are not accessible? The current budget references $107 million for transportation—now budgeted to increase to $112 million next fiscal year—and over $90 million for “contracted services” and “contracted educational services.” Instead of pouring resources into transportation our students cannot use now or for the foreseeable future and wasting money on contracts with organizations incapable of accessing children during the pandemic, would we not be better served by investing directly in our dedicated classroom teachers, supporting their efforts to educate our children?

7. Students attending Boston Public Schools should be given the same quality education as those who go to schools outside of the district as part of the METCO program. That there is a significant difference in quality should be worrying to city leadership and reflects inadequate progress in improving school quality. 

8. Likewise, every day some 10,000 children from across the city go to charter schools. There are waiting lists for METCO and for charter schools. Parents have spoken with their feet. How can Boston’s leaders allow such flight from the city’s public schools to continue? 

The people of Boston deserve the best school system money can afford. They deserve the best teachers to be hired. The questions that the City Council must consider, including those suggested above, are serious and will have ramifications well into the future. 

Lawrence S. DiCara is a Dorchester native and Boston attorney who served on the Boston City Council and was a candidate for mayor of Boston in 1983.

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