Monday, March 31, 2008

Long Struggle Ahead for School Budget

Thanks to a one-time infusion of $10 million from the city’s reserve funds, the Boston School Committee approved an $827.5 million budget with words of relief and praise for Mayor Thomas Menino. Despite requiring some cut-backs and new cost-savings, the budget figure for the next school year was still higher than the current figure by 5.7%. While budget-watchers see the potential for more savings in facilities and transportation, new plans to help students—sometimes by expanding services—are up against the growing pressure expected in coming years to hold the line on spending.

School officials say more than half the budget increase over the coming year is for personnel costs and other non-discretionary costs such as utilities. Almost one-quarter of the increase is for the cost of programs originally funded by other sources, such as paraprofessionals in kindergarten, family and community outreach, and the summer school transition program. A smaller portion of the increase is for new spending and expansion in areas such as K1, K-8 schools, advanced placement, “international Baccalaureate,” and dropout prevention and recovery.

Because student enrollment has declined over the last five years by close to 10%, the Boston schools are getting less money from the largest source of federal funding, the Title I program. Over the last two years the decrease was $7.8 million, and next year’s reduction is expected to be $3.6 million. For the coming year, officials expect a slight increase in the state’s Chapter 70 funding, to about $173.4 million.

The School Dept. acknowledges that some of the drop in enrollment is because of families choosing other options, such as charter schools. But officials also cite a change in Boston’s population mix—up in recent years by 30,000, though with a decrease in the total number of school-aged children. What officials say has not changed is the share of the city’s school-aged children attending the Boston Public Schools—about75%.

At the March 26 School Committee meeting when the budget was approved, Supt. Carol R. Johnson said there was “excess capacity” in elementary and middle grades, and that officials would have to look at consolidating services.

“The budget challenge we’re facing tonight is not a one-year challenge,” she said. “It is a multi-year challenge where we will be forced to look at savings in the future.”

The decrease in Title I funding and student enrollment was noted last year by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

“They’ve got buildings that are underutilized, underperforming, and yet resources are going into them,” said Municipal Research Bureau President Samuel R. Tyler.

“If they don’t go forward and make the kind of changes they have to make,” he said, “the next time around it’s not going to get any easier.”

In his state of the city address in January, Menino strongly urged cost-saving in transportation. Though he promised to maintain service to students with special needs, he said the School Dept. could “save significant money on the majority of transportation costs,” or else see them increase by 50% over the next five years.

But decision-makers are also concerned with other numbers, starting with dropout figures. In 2006-07, the Boston schools had 1,659 dropouts, with an annual rate of 8.9%. That was better than the figure for the year before, 9.9%, but still only down to the second highest figure since 2000-01. Last year’s figures from Boston show continuing disparities by race and gender, with a dropout rate for Hispanic students at 11.9%, black students at 8.7%, white students at 6.9%, and Asian at 3.3%.

In her memorandum to the School Committee on January 30, Johnson drew attention to other sub-categories—the graduation rates for the two largest groups of male students in the Boston Schools: 45% for Latinos and 48% for African-Americans. Another challenging figure is the almost 20% of the students in special education. Johnson maintains one part of that total is caused by an “over-referral” of students of color. And special needs students, according to statewide figures, are also the most likely to drop out.

The state’s second highest category of dropouts is English Language Learners (ELL), and in Boston they account for 18% of the students.

“There is not an adequate range of programs for ELL students, and there is not enough support for these students in their schools,” Johnson wrote. “Exacerbating the problem is a shortage of qualified, certified English as a Second Language teachers. Finally, families are often confused or uninformed about the choices available to them, resulting in their children not receiving appropriate language services.”

Johnson’s memorandum also drew attention to the call for quality in the schools, and it follows a request for proposals to set up more innovative pilot schools. And, as her message to the School Committee noted, her agenda depends on new revenue and collaborations.

After the budget vote, Johnson spoke of budget needs and the importance of keeping students engaged.

“I don’t think we can get the kind of excellent opportunities for all children that everybody wants,” she said, “without some added resources.”