Passing through a tunnel of chanting students and parents at BPS's Court Street headquarters, the School Committee met last Wednesday to receive the preliminary budget. While demonstrators stayed positive with their message of "Invest in our Future" and "Save our Schools," the mood in the meeting could not hide the dismal reality of a head-on fiscal crisis.
The proposed budget of $787 million is a 5.5 percent reduction from last year's $833 million, a $46 million shortfall. Superintendent Carol Johnson's budget cutting plan so far includes the elimination of 918 positions and the potential for school closings, but still comes up $24.6 million short. Johnson has also proposed a major overhaul of the busing system to save transportation costs, however it would likely not be ready for next year.
"This is an extraordinary time," said Johnson. "We believe that everyone has to make some sacrifices."
"Not only are our teachers getting cut, but our classes could get bigger and it will affect our education," said Kimberly Vo at that meeting, a Boston Latin School junior from Fields Corner. "By uniting all the kids and parents we can make a difference. Something can be done. We are the future."
While a plan to increase the number of busing zones in the district from three to five in order to slim down a bloated $70 million transportation budget has been introduced, BPS Communications Director Chris Horan said it needs more study.
"This will be done responsibly and in a gradual way," said Horan. "We're not interested in creating a massive disruption at the beginning of the school year."
Horan said the new school zone map was based on demographics, the quality of schools per zone, and choice data.
Zone 4 includes Dorchester (west to Blue Hill Avenue, south to Morton Street) and South Boston; Zone 5 includes Mattapan, Hyde Park, West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain (north to the Arborway), Zone 2 is Allston and Brighton; Zone 1 is East Boston and Charlestown; and Zone 3 includes Jamaica Plain (south to the Arborway) and the rest of the city.
"It's all about the quality of choice within zones," said School Committee member Michael O'Neill. "Parents would be supportive of change if they could be ensured that is true."
The 918 district-wide job cuts are "full-time equivalents" and could represent more than one part-time position or a position currently vacant.
A total of almost 700 positions in the schools could be lost, including some 400 teaching jobs. However, even with all the proposed budget cuts, the district is still short $24.6 million.
Sarah Heffernan, an Edward Everett Elementary School parent who attended a public hearing at Columbia Point's McCormack School on Tuesday, said the Everett's proposed 16 percent cut will destroy its art, music, library and literacy programs and eliminate a staff member who works with parents.
"Are the schools across the city looking at comparable things?" she asked. "It is so disheartening. All that will be left are the teachers."
Johnson has asked the Boston Teachers Union to accept a voluntary one-year wage freeze, estimated to save $30.7 million. Mayor Tom Menino already made the same request of all city employees, so far with limited success.
Horan said it has not been determined what programs the wage freeze savings would restore after covering the $24.6 million gap.
BTU President Richard Stutman said that although the union has yet to take an official position, it wants to explore other options before agreeing to a freeze.
"We're not looking at this as a spending issue, we're looking at it as a revenue issue," he said, suggesting a proposed hotel and meals tax increase, changes to the city's tax-exempt status for colleges and federal stimulus package dollars could cover the gap. "And we think the schools are being asked to shoulder the brunt well beyond where they ought to be."
Horan said if the BTU does not agree to the freeze, the district will likely shutter schools.
Dorchester parent Elaina Quinn was adamant about the wage freeze at the McCormack Tuesday night.
"It needs to happen," she said. "I work in the state government and we're in a freeze. My husband is receiving no raise or bonus this year. Teachers are undervalued and underpaid, but this is something that everyone is dealing with. We need to step back and stand together."
Additional budget hearings are scheduled for Tuesday, March 10, at 6 p.m. at English High School and Wednesday, March 11, at BPS headquarters, 26 Court St. The budget must be complete by March 25.