Boston's economy is booming, but schools seem cash poor. Why? – The Boston Globe

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By many measures, the Boston school system should be flush with cash, thanks to the city's booming economy.

Over the past decade, the parking lots and rotting piers of the Seaport District have given way to sleek office towers and luxury condominiums, and large-scale developments have sprouted up elsewhere, including the city's third tallest skyscraper (in the Back Bay).

That has been tens of billions of dollars into the city's tax base, swelling it beyond $ 160 billion. The new revenue has been allowed in the city, while Mayor Martin J. Walsh recently championed his state of the city address.

Yet earlier in January on Beacon Hill, Walsh has been asked for more of the state of affairs, arguing that "without these resources, we will struggle in Boston to meet the basic needs "or 55,000 students.

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For some political insiders, the mayor's remarks elicited disbelief: How can the economic economy of the state not have enough money for its schools? Even parents, teachers, and lawyers who have pressed for that question.

"We are educating a poor student population," said Michael Maguire, a Boston teacher and parent. "Honestly, I feel the city can afford more."

For all the city's wealth, the Boston school system feels like it belongs in an economically depressed industrial center. Decades-old buildings plagued by leaks. Drinking fountains shut because of lead pipe contamination. Persistent shortages or guidance counselors, nurses, psychologists, textbooks – even soap in the bathrooms.

All the while, many Boston schools are under pressure to increase their standardized test scores and graduation rates.

The disconnect between the city's prosperity and the state of its schools has baffled parents, teachers, and education advocates for years. They have a lot of state funding and question whether Walsh provides enough money to go to school, and whether the School Department spends that money wisely.

"Yes, there needs to be more funding for our schools, but we need to make sure that funding is getting into the classrooms, and that is not happening," said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. "I do not know if residents in the city of Boston realize how resource-strapped our schools are and how we can get teachers and parents to join our resources."

Boston's latest push for more aid comes out as the state's outdated formula for calculating local school aid. The formula has been implemented with a stable inflation and is consequently underfunding education by $ 1 billion or more, according to multiple state reports.

Whether importance to Walsh is ensuring Boston schools receive a minimum amount of state aid.

It's not like Boston does not spend a lot on its schools: $ 1.1 billion this year, well more than required by the state. Since Walsh took office in 2014, it has increased spending on the school system by more than $ 170 million.

Overall, Boston spends almost $ 21,000 per student, according to state data. Among the nation's largest systems, only New York City shells out more per student than Boston, according to a US Census report last spring.

So why do Boston schools appear to be so cash poor? A collision of factors creates the perfect financial storm.

Like other districts, Boston has not immune from skyrocketing health care costs, pension obligations, and special education spending.

The school funding formula used by the state provides only 17.5 percent of the required per-pupil spending for Boston – the bare minimum allowed under law. And little of that state money actually goes into the city's schools, as the state divert most of that for the cost of Boston students in charter schools. The idea is that Boston needs less money because it has fewer students to educate.

While those factors are largely out of Boston's control, city officials also have responsibility for a system that many analysts have described as unwieldy and inefficient. Many schools have about half the number of students. But attempts to close them with heated resistance.

School buses – many less than half full – crisscross the city, while others are taking part in their own neighborhoods, while others are transporting homeless students to and from shelters outside Boston, and students with disabilities to private programs in the suburbs. In all, transportation consumes more than 10 percent of the school budget, one of the highest rates in the nation.

Liam Kerr, Massachusetts director of Democrat Reform Reform, said some of BPS's financial problems have been decades in the making.

"Marty Walsh got handed a house underwater," Kerr said. "At some point, there will be a financial crisis, and hard decisions will have to be made."

City officials say they are keenly aware of potential recession and are preparing for it. They also say that they are going to MISS to redo bus routes.

But they also do not state enough.

"State aid used to be an integral part of how we funded government," city budget director Justin Sterritt said.

Two months ago, state educational aid covered almost a third of Boston's school expenses; this year about 5 percent of the system's funds will come from state educational aid. And city officials anticipate that in just a few years will go instead of charter-school costs of Boston students.

This year, for instance, Boston is slated to receive $ 220 million in state education aid; about $ 167 million will cover charter-school tuition for 10,000 students, leaving a little more than $ 50 million for the 55,000 students in the city school system.

That has forced the city to pony up more each year, as it seeks to expand and update schools. In the past five years, Boston has added 1,000 preschool seats, expanded the elementary and middle-school day by 40 minutes, replaced frozen lunches with fresh entrances, and purchased 50,000 pieces of new furniture, among other efforts.

Still, in the district's 125 schools, money is tight.

That is the largest number of students in Massachusetts living in poverty, the largest number of students who do not speak English fluently, and the largest number of students with disabilities strikes many as unfair.

"It's very frustrating," said Jessica Tang, President of the Boston Teachers Union. "Our students deserve the same opportunities that students in the suburbs receive."

Many parents, teachers, elected officials, and education advocates argue the state's 26-year-old school funding formula has never been treated Boston fairly. Although the formula takes into account student demographics, including income, it also has more weight on a community's ability to pay.

If Boston is treated as an affluent suburb – just 58 percent of students in its schools live in households that rely on government assistance. One key barometer of property values ​​Boston is a place above the wealthy community of Concord.

The end result is that the state provides Boston with the same level of aid. Concord: just 17.5 percent of the amount required for adequate education.

But the resources available in schools in Boston and those in Concord are worlds apart.

Last year, a group of parents from the Blackstone Elementary School in Boston's South End, where three-quarters of students live in poverty and almost half a day in the world, see a suburban education is like.

The parents were greeted with a musical performance by students playing a variety of instruments. Classrooms had computers and electronic whiteboards connected to the Internet. Students home sick could participate virtually.

At recess, students broke into groups and were assigned a recess coach.

"For me, it was like seeing magical classrooms," Rafaela Polanco, whose son is in the third grade at the Blackstone, said through an interpreter. "I felt so small. Our school has so few things. "

For instance, in blackstone students' class beat on small cans instead of using instruments, Polanco said. The Blackstone has had its budget cut, and the school will probably need $ 500,000, which could result in elimination of 10 support staff positions.

Polanco has decided whether to move to Concord through the voluntary school integration program METCO. But then she had second thoughts.

"If I go to Concord, that's great for my kid, what about the other kids and families at the Boston Public Schools? Who is going to fight for them? "Said Polanco, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic. "So I'm staying to fight for them."

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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