Boston Schools Superintendent Fights To Close $63M Budget Gap

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It was a hostile scene at English High School in Jamaica Plain Thursday night, as Boston Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson laid out the details of her revised plan to fill a projected $63 million budget gap. She said the district must make dramatic changes, chief among them: a proposal to close or merge 13 schools.

WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov was at the school committee meeting Thursday night, which was packed with parents and school staff.

Bob Oakes: Monica, we know the superintendent has increased the number of schools affected since she presented her previous plan in October. What was different about the superintendent's presentation Thursday night?

Monica Brady-Myerov: Superintendent Johnson made a much more impassioned case for the cuts. Last time she just released the plan to close or merge eight schools and then held a hearing, but didn’t present her case. Thursday night she talked about making bold, deliberate and thoughtful changes that will change the school district permanently. But she said her goal is to better educate all students. She acknowledged several times that school closings are difficult and emotional.

Johnson also had a lot of back up. She had a panel of district administrators to answer detailed written questions, who painstakingly went over the numbers and the other options — and there really weren’t others.

What was the response from parents and teachers this time?

Much more subdued than the last hearing where police had to keep the screaming, chanting parents from storming the stage. I think Johnson sort of buried the parents with numbers, and although the panel answered specific questions and heard suggestions — such as where is the federal bailout for public schools like there was for banks and automakers — they didn’t get to the open mic questions until later, and by then many parents had left. Still the anger and disappointment in the auditorium was palpable.

I spoke to Linda Barros, who was trying to save the Lee Academy pilot school from closure. The school will be severely cut back from a pre-kindergarten to fifth to just a pre-kindergarten to first grade so it can merge with another school. Barros predicted these closures will not solve their problem of 5,600 empty seats, "because at the end of the road they will have many more empty seats … it’s a joke," she said.

Where are the mayor and the city council on this?

Mayor Thomas Menino was in the hospital with what his aides say was a bad reaction to antibiotics he was taking for an infection. But even without his presence, he’s been very quiet on this whole process, not expressing his support, not criticizing her.

There were several city council members there last night, including Council President Michael Ross, who said the process is very important and he’s been disappointed how quickly this has all happened.

"People need time to process, we just went through this with the Boston Public Libraries, where there was just no time given to people to digest the news, and it was very difficult," Ross said.

Schools on this latest closure or merger list found out about 24 hours before the meeting. Other education watchers have expressed sympathy for Johnson, who is doing something very, very difficult alone — closing schools. They felt she deserves more support from the mayor, city council and state education leaders because these changes are necessary.

How serious is the budget problem for Boston public schools? What if they don’t take action now?

It’s a very serious problem that is only going to get worse — $63 million this year because they’ve lost federal stimulus money, health insurance has gone up and wages have increased for teachers, even in this recession. Meanwhile, 5,600 seats are unfilled, in part because of charter schools. If they don’t address these system problems, it will grow to $91 million in two years.

With the previous proposal, Superintendent Johnson modified her recommendations. Do you get the sense she will do that again with this new proposal?

No, this is an accelerated process. There will be hearings at each school slated to close or merge, but the school committee will vote on this in less than two weeks and that doesn’t give anyone much time to make a case to the superintendent to change her mind.


This program aired on December 3, 2010.


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