Walsh calls for big boost in school spending

Commits $100 million in anticipation of new state aid

Walsh calls for big boost in school spending

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera at January 9, 2019, State House unveiling of the Promise Act education funding bill. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

BUOYED BY FLUSH city coffers and a new law promising more state education aid down the road, Mayor Marty Walsh said he will commit $100 million in new annual city spending to the Boston Public Schools.

The announcement came during Walsh’s annual State of the City speech, delivered Tuesday night at Symphony Hall, and marks the first time the mayor has made a multiyear budget commitment of that size. His plan calls for the $100 million increase to be phased in over three years, with priority in the first year given to schools that have been chronically underperforming.

In November, Gov. Charlie Baker signed long-awaited legislation revamping the state’s education funding formula. The bill ultimately will bring an additional $100 million in state aid to Boston, but it calls for the funding increase to be ramped up over seven years.

Walsh’s plan would essentially have the city front that money to its schools ahead of the state schedule.

“Our students can’t wait seven years. The time to act is now,” Walsh said in his speech before a crowd that included Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, Treasurer Deb Goldberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Boston city councilors, and other local officials.

Along with the school funding commitment, Walsh’s said the city would redouble its affordable housing efforts, including issuing for the first time city-funded rental vouchers for low-income residents. He also urged Beacon Hill leaders to “be bold” in tackling new transportation financing to support the MBTA and called on lawmakers to give local communities the right to raise money to improve transit services through regional ballot initiatives. (Walsh talked up regional ballot initiatives on this recent episode of The Codcast.)

In a briefing Tuesday morning with reporters ahead of the mayor’s speech, school superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the new education funding would be used both to strengthen core academic instruction and for arts and music programming, mental health services, school liaisons to work with families, and other services that school officials say are crucial for the city’s high-need student population.

Cassellius said the new money would eventually reach every school, but the initial focus would be on the 39 schools that have been designated by the state as chronically underperforming. “This is incredibly important to focus on these schools first because they are the neediest and because they have been struggling for years and they just cannot continue to wait,” she said.  The school budget for the current year is $1.1 billion.

Looming in the background as Walsh announced the accelerated new spending and priority for struggling schools is a comprehensive state review of the Boston school system. A team of outside educators carried out a series of visits to Boston schools in October, and their report is expected to be released early this year.

The state conducts about 20 such district reviews each year and says they are part of routine oversight of local schools, but they have led to state takeover of several chronically low performing districts in recent years. The review could also result in targeted state action directed at a smaller number of long-struggling Boston schools.

The mayor’s announcement quickly drew criticism from City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who has made education a top priority, expressed impatience with the pace of change in the district, and been mentioned as a possible challenger to Walsh.

“In order to ensure every family has access to a quality BPS school, we need more than announcements & money thrown at the problem,” Campbell wrote on Twitter. “It is hard not to view the Mayor’s BPS announcement at his [State of the City address] with great skepticism. The administration has failed to address our most pressing structural and systemic inequities in BPS: stalled progress on universal pre-k, crumbling buildings and infrastructure, and high schools that aren’t preparing children for success.”

Justin Sterritt, the city’s budget chief, said Boston’s robust economy made it possible for the city to ramp up education spending ahead of the new state aid schedule, while still maintaining its solid standing for sound fiscal management. “The city continues to be a hub of growth economically,” Sterritt said. “At the same time as this is a bold commitment, the city was just recognized as one of the cities that was most prepared in the country for a recession.”

City officials stressed that the new education spending would not go toward existing costs, such as contractual salary increases for teachers or employee benefits. It will lead to more hiring to deliver services such as school-based mental health care. Exactly how many new positions will be created is not yet clear, they said, but will be included in next year’s budget plan for the district, which is scheduled to be unveiled in early February.

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Michael Jonas

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