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At Start Of Budget Season In Boston And Beyond, A Tug-Of-War Over State Education Aid

Committee vice chair Hardin Coleman and superintendent Tommy Chang. (Max Larkin/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Committee vice chair Hardin Coleman and superintendent Tommy Chang. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang has unveiled a $1.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, marking a $48 million increase over last year’s budget and another record high.

Look to Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget proposal and you’ll find another record: $118.6 million more in state aid to K-12 education, coming to a total of $4.87 billion.

In the city, officials point to a lot of good news: $30 million more in teacher salaries, $17 million for extended school days, $700,000 for its enrichment curriculum and money for four new school nurses.

But as city and state officials tout those proposed increases, they’re also pointing fingers when it comes to explaining lingering shortfalls. And in a sea of jargon and funding formulae, it can be difficult to discern who’s in the right.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh made the city’s case on Monday, when he said that slumping state aid to the Boston Public Schools has become “a crisis.”

Massachusetts’ Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data do show how state support for Boston -- so-called Chapter 70 aid -- has slowed. In the fiscal years between 1999 and 2007, state support for BPS grew by an average of 2.2 percent a year.

But over the past eight budgets, the annual bump turned into a flatline, even as the district’s spending grew by more than a third.

And it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Since 2014, Boston has watched as about 3,000 more of its students left to enroll in charter schools -- that’s a total uptick of nearly 40 percent. In Massachusetts, education dollars follow students, so every such departure further drains the district coffers.

As a matter of state law, districts that lose students to charters are entitled to be reimbursed for the lost dollars they represent. But since 2013, the state Legislature has failed to find the money to cover that reimbursement.

Hence the crisis, Walsh points out.

“It’s important that the House of Representatives and the state Senate recognize the fact that Boston’s been underfunded by nearly $100 million for charter-school reimbursement," he said Monday. "I would hope that that gets rectified.”

Walsh added that he’d like to see Chapter 70 aid “stop declining.”

Superintendent Chang told reporters Wednesday that he anticipates $17 million less in help next fiscal year if the governor’s budget were to pass as-is.

As Walsh added that Boston accounts for about 20 percent of the revenue, he was careful to avoid appearances of big-city supremacy.

“We need to get more funding, not just to Boston, but to other cities and towns that are in the same predicament we are,” he said.

But that’s where state education officials object. They answer that there aren’t many cities or towns in Boston’s position.

State aid is calculated based on how much a city can afford to pay on its own. The fast-growing tax base in Boston and neighboring cities like Cambridge and Somerville make them decidedly unlike other towns which are facing de-industrialization and economic downturn.

Ten years ago, Boston was taking in almost $266,000 in tax revenue for each of its students. In last year’s budget, that number had risen to nearly $400,000 — driven primarily by an increase in property values.

According to state thresholds, Boston now has more than $100 million more than it needs to cover the basic expenses of its public schools. But the state doesn’t ask Boston to take care of itself, instead opting to cover more than the “minimum aid” threshold of 17.5 percent.

Officials in the Baker administration admitted that charter school reimbursements aren't fully funded, but added that the Legislature hasn't found a way to cover that line item either. Chang said he projects that payout to Boston to shrink next year, even though the city continues to see higher and higher charter enrollment.

District officials are unlikely to budge from their claim that Boston deserves more money from the state. The costs of employee benefits, especially health care, and of special education are ballooning. Most schools are going without libraries and other key resources.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz has made it a priority to see the state’s education funding formula recalculated to account for those rising costs. Her bill was reported out of committee late Wednesday.

But the question, given the state's current approach to school funding, is whether Boston -- its revenue rising on an updraft of development -- should be treated as if it is a poor city, or a wealthy city educating poor students.

Correction: This story originally said that Boston Public Schools' proposed FY19 budget included $15 million more for teacher salaries. The actual increase is $30 million. We regret the error.

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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