THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Hub schools weigh cuts to close $30.7m deficit

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / March 20, 2008

Some schools could close. Summer school may be eliminated. Academic coaches and preschool teachers' aides may be let go.

These are just some of the options Boston's superintendent and School Committee considered last night for closing a $30.7 million gap in next year's budget.

While no decision is expected until next week, the possible cuts highlight the severity of the budget problem hitting school systems around the state.

"None of the choices on our list are great," Superintendent Carol Johnson said earlier this week. "This is difficult, but we've done everything we can to protect things that we think are important to student achievement."

The school system has already attempted to cut the shortfall in half by identifying $15 million in savings, Johnson said. They include reducing central office staff, freezing hiring and unnecessary travel, limiting executive raises, and eliminating extra money allotted to the most troubled schools for longer school days and teacher training.

"It's almost impossible to make any type of substantial reduction without impacting our children," said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. "If you want to get kids to pass the MCAS and close the achievement gap, cutting summer school would be disastrous."

Parents and students at last night's budget meeting implored the School Committee not to cut sex education, transportation, extended day programs, school-parent liaisons, and teachers for students with limited English proficiency.

The 56,000-student school system is coping with reduced state and federal funding because of declining enrollment, coupled with spending increases on new programs in recent years before Johnson took over in August.

"She inherited a budget deficit; she's been dealt a bad hand," said Stutman, referring to the expansion of preschools and small high schools initiated by former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, despite an enrollment drop of 10 percent in the past five years.

The system also faces increasing costs for utilities, employee benefits, and transportation. Stutman said he is advocating a 2 percent increase in the meals tax.

The School Committee indicated last night that it would consider allowing advertising on school buses and raising tuition at Boston's school for the deaf for students from outside the city.

Elizabeth Reilinger, chairwoman of the School Committee, said the current economic realities set the stage for school closings and consolidations, not just in Boston, but around the country.

"We have to do this in a thoughtful way," Reilinger said. "It's not just a matter of filling in a few dollars. And it's not just this year, but a number of years moving forward."

Johnson's staff is reviewing the system's 144 schools, scrutinizing enrollment, demographic trends, student achievement, and popularity of schools among parents, to determine whether any should be closed.

John Mudd, project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, said: "How will we possibly get there without hitting the kids in the classrooms? I plead for specificity on exactly what the cuts will be for the schools, so parents can know where we're heading."

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