FOR THE past five years, Boston's school system received steady budget increases even while student enrollment dropped. That's the fiscal equivalent of a gut course. But now it faces brutal instruction from the escalating economic crisis.
On Wednesday, School Superintendent Carol Johnson presented a preliminary budget that would eliminate 900 jobs, including 400 teaching positions. Faced with a $107 million shortfall for the fiscal year beginning in July, Johnson raised the specter of closing or consolidating schools in addition to the six she targeted last fall.
Johnson also wants to lower transportation costs by altering the city's school assignment plan. The controversial plan would reduce the level of school choice now offered to parents. And she is making political waves by proposing to strip $1.1 million from the school budget used to bus Boston students to and from their private and parochial schools in the city. These are good fights. Money needed for classrooms is being wasted on half-empty buses traveling along unnecessary routes.
Johnson presents a worst-case scenario. But that is the only responsible scenario to offer in an economic climate dominated by cuts in state aid to cities and towns and dwindling local tax revenues. Some educators and advocates say Johnson is being too aggressive. They believe the fiscal picture could brighten considerably if a federal stimulus bill provides what could be $74 million in direct education aid to Boston over the next few years. But much is unknown about the size of the stimulus or restrictions on its use. And using millions of federal dollars to raise the base of the $833 million school budget, which is comprised largely of salaries, could be disastrous when the stimulus money stops flowing.
The best way to save teaching jobs and classroom materials now would be for the 6,500-member Boston Teachers Union and other school unions to adopt Mayor Menino's call for a one-year wage freeze for all municipal employees. The freeze on salaries could provide a cushion of about $30 million for the schools. BTU president Richard Stutman says his union might consider delaying the pay increase, provided it was paid back within a reasonable period. But with tough times ahead, nothing short of a freeze will protect teachers, especially the young, energetic ones at greatest risk of job loss. The Headmasters Association for the city's high schools showed admirable leadership on Wednesday by volunteering to exceed the freeze and take a 3 percent pay cut.
In October, Johnson went before the public with a plan to save $28 million in school costs. But she didn't go far enough. Now she needs to go back on the road and make an even tougher, but necessary, case for cuts.