by Jackie Dee King
In the face of looming cutbacks in Boston’s public schools, a broad coalition of school and community leaders is vowing to stay united in the fight for quality education.
More than 150 parents, teachers, students, custodians, bus drivers, and community representatives turned out for an Education Summit called by City Councilor Chuck Turner and the Coalition for Equal Quality Education at Roxbury Community College on June 23rd.
Leaders from all constituencies pledged to work together in opposing the potential budget cuts, layoffs, school closings, and the possibility of a new student assignment plan that could worsen the segregation of Boston schools.
The summit’s spirit of unity contrasted with the tenor of other meetings in recent months, where some groupsâ€”such as parents and teachersâ€”have been pitted against each other, according to Mary Jo Hetzel of Work for Quality, Fight for Equity, one of the organizers of the event. The real problem lies in the policies being imposed from above, several speakers noted.
Many challenged claims by the School Department and the City of Boston that cuts are necessary because of objective budget constraints. Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, called for taxing the city’s large, wealthy non-profits, such as hospitals and universities, in order to fully fund the public schools. The law prohibiting taxation of non-profits was passed in the 1830s and is obsolete in today’s economy, he noted.
“Northeastern University owns 50 to 70 acres of prime real estate, right in the heart of Boston,” Stutman said. “Yet it pays only $30,000 a year to the city in lieu of taxes. It should be paying tens of millions.” If all the large non-profits paid appropriate taxes, he added, the city could reap up to $100 million more each year and school cuts would not be necessary.
Councilor Turner deplored “a lack of commitment to public education across the country.” He said that local, state, and federal governments must all be held accountable for adequately funding education. He noted that the state’s financial support of Boston schools has fallen from 28% to 18% of the budget. “They imposed MCAS on us and said they would fund the additional costs, then they pulled back,” he said. On the federal level, Turner said, redirecting just a fraction of the huge US military budget into civilian needs could solve the problems of school funding across the country. For now, he urged people to call the Mayor’s office and demand NO cuts in personnel for the schools.
Many expressed concern about the unequal impact of the measures under consideration.Â Citizens for Public Schools Board Member Barbara Fields said that the schools which have been labeled “underperforming” by the School Departmentâ€”and thus are most likely to be closed or reorganizedâ€”are in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan where a higher proportion of low-income families and children of color reside. “Why should these neighborhoods be targeted, why should these students have to suffer,” she asked, “when we haven’t provided what’s needed for these schools? We’re still penalizing those we haven’t done right by in the first place!” Fields is also a member of the Black Educator’s Alliance of Massachusetts.
Jose Lopez, co-chair of the Coalition for Equal Quality Education, said that the administration has had on hold a plan to address the “opportunity-to-learn” gap in Boston’s schools since 2006, a plan that many in the coalition helped to develop. “They need to implement it!” he declared.
David Jelley, president of the Custodians Union, said that 42 custodians were to be laid off. “Morale is low among our members,” he said. “We can’t do our jobs with these cuts. The schools won’t be clean and safe for the children.”
Andre Francois of the Bus Drivers Union, read a statement calling for putting the needs of the public schools ahead of the $137.5 million debt service paid to the banks. This amounts to 5.5% of the city’s budget. The union opposes the cutting of bus lines and transportation services for children.
Judith Baker, a teacher for 34 years and a girls’ basketball coach, pointed out that Boston students are cheated out of many of the extracurricular activities available to children in wealthier suburban districtsâ€”activities such as sports, art, theater, music, newspapers, that engage them in the schools and prevent them from dropping out. She and others called for increased funding, rather than cutbacks, for these programs.
Lopez, Fields, and others questioned whether the small, selected “focus groups” and “stakeholders’ meetings” the School Department was planning to host in the coming months to discuss proposed school changes would truly represent the community. The coalition members agreed to meet regularly to monitor and respond to the School Department’s proposals.
The Coalition for Equal Quality Education formed in the spring of 2009 to fight the School Department’s five-zone school assignment plan, which would have increased segregation in the Boston schools. After hundreds of people opposed the plan at hearings, it was withdrawn. The Coalition can be reached at www.coalitionforequalqualityeducation.org
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