Counting ghost seats

The way Mayor Walsh speaks about Boston Public Schools, you would think that you could walk into any school in the district and find vast empty spaces.

“We have maintained building space for 93,000 students in a district whose enrollment has declined to 57,000,” Mayor Walsh at the Annual Address to the Boston Municipal Bureau in March.

Doesn’t that sound like you could just walk into any old school building and count empty chairs, one, two, three, four….

As if 40,000 kids just got up and walked away from their desks leaving sad, empty seats behind.

But if you walk into any BPS school, you will see that is not the case at all. You will see that classrooms are filled with kids. Teachers often have carts carrying their materials from classroom to classroom because there just isn’t enough space.

Mayor Walsh is getting his number from the McKinsey report that the city paid $660,000 for. It took a lot of effort, but a very persistent hero from QUEST doggedly pursued an FOIA request until the report was released in its entirety.

Now, if you look at the report, you will not see any information about how they calculated that number. That’s because their calculations are a trade secret. There are some hints, however.

If you look on page 115, you will see this statement:

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The current 130 schools could hold over 90,000 students if operating at full capacity without student-teacher ratio limits.

Think about this statement for a minute. If you could just shove kids into a classroom without regard to student/teacher ratio, you could argue that BPS has empty seats.

So there are not 40,000 empty seats in BPS. These seats are theoretical. They only exist if there are no legal, contractual or educational limits to the amount of children you can stuff into a classroom. A reality that does not exist anywhere in this country. You don’t just shove kids into a building and call it a school. Just like hospitals, schools have spatial needs for art, music, special education and playgrounds.

And it is this faulty logic that the mayor is using to make a case for closing schools.

But why? Why is he going to great lengths to argue that we should close schools?

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On slide 24 of the presentation, there is a little gift to developers.

Extremely valuable property in the Fenway and on Newbury Street that could be sold. That would be Snowden International on Newbury Street (a building that cannot be sold because it is held in a trust) and BLS and BAA in the Fenway.

This isn’t about our kids. This is about selling our buildings to land developers. Our children are merely in the way.

Becoming mayor does not give Marty Walsh the right to raid public assets. These schools belong to us, the parents, students and teachers of BPS. We’ve paid for them with the endless hours that we have invested running bake sales, silent auctions, and dance offs. We have paid for them with the time we have spent in parent conferences, sporting events, Parent Council meetings and clean up days. We have entrusted our children to this system. We have checked their homework and signed the blasted reading logs. We have accompanied classes on school trips. We have Opted In or Opted Out of PARCC/MCAS.

These schools are not just buildings. They are not just names. They are the anchors of our children’s lives. They are staples of the community.

You do not get to decide that the real estate is more valuable to you than our children’s education, Mayor Walsh. You have no right to this. No right at all.

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Defunding Autism Programs is a heck of a way to celebrate Autism Awareness month

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April is Autism Awareness Month

On April 13, Mayor Walsh and city officials presented the FY17 budget. At the podium, Superintendent Chang remarked, “We believe that a budget is a reflection of our values” during the BPS portion of the presentation. State and local officials so often equate Budget to Values that it is bordering on a trope. But I want to take them on their word and examine what this FY 17 budget values.

After sustained protests that culminated in 2,000 kids walking out of their BPS classrooms, Mayor Walsh backed off generalized cuts to the high schools. However, previously planned cuts to Special Education are still in place.

Special education is being underfunded by 5 million dollars. The Autism Strands and the Social Emotional Strands are being asked to increase class sizes and less money will be given to the special education students in Inclusion Classrooms.

This isn’t a lean year for the city. The city has increased its budget by 4% but the increase given to BPS is only 1.3%. There was an 8 million-dollar surplus in the budget due to a light winter we had that was completely given to the Parks Department.

So what do we value?

Because the budget cuts specifically target the autism strands and the social and emotional strands, the schools that are getting hit the hardest are the schools with high numbers of these children. The schools that service the most vulnerable children in the city are being asked to shoulder the burden of balancing the city’s fiscal responsibilities.

I would argue that underfunding special education is not only immoral but fiscally unwise.

Later on in the budget presentation, Mayor Walsh lamented the high number of children in the city that are given out of district placements. To those who are not familiar with special education law, millions of dollars are spent sending special education children to specialized schools if the city cannot provide them with an appropriate education. This is because all children have a constitutional right to an education. So if a district cannot provide an education to a child with special needs, they are sent to one of these private schools at great cost (anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 per year plus transportation.)

Not one of the bean counters down at 1 City Hall Square seem able to connect the dots.

If you underfund special education, and increase class sizes for the autism and social/emotional strands, you will have more children who qualify for out of district placement because their parents will be able to argue that they are not being given an appropriate education.

The city will be quick to point out that the class sizes are still within state law. But of course they are. The city would be sued if they weren’t. An IEP stands for an Individualized Education Plan. So the out of district placement decisions are on a case by case basis. It doesn’t matter if the class sizes are in compliance with state law. If the children in these classrooms are not making progress, their parents will have an argument that BPS cannot meet their needs, and that they need to be sent out of district.

Thus these cuts are penny wise and pound foolish.

We need to recommit to our children with special education needs and stop trying to nickel and diming the special needs students. It’s wrong to balance the city’s budget at the expense of the students who need special education services. This is particularly true in a flush year where the budget cuts are only happening because Mayor Walsh decided appropriately funding Boston Public Schools was not something he needed to do.

Why I support the #RiseAct

Opposition to the RiseAct gives Truth to the Lie that Education Reformers care about our kids. The state education committee revealed a new bill that would allow for more charters.

If you know me, you might be a little surprised that I’m supporting a bill that creates more charter seats.  I am against expanding the charter schools because opening up more charters results in public schools having to close in order to remain financially solvent.

So why am I so interested in this bill? Because raising the number of charter seats would be tied to the legislature funding the charter school reimbursements every year.

This is important. Legally, school districts are entitled to that funding already, and the legislature should be funding this now. But they never do. This year, the reimbursement is underfunded by about 10 million. Our special education programs are currently slated to be cut by 5 million dollars so this funding would be tremendous for Boston if we actually received it. This proposal would get both district and charter schools on the same page in making sure that the reimbursements were funded.

But the proposal has been met by loud howls on both sides which makes me wonder who is really standing up for our kids?

The teachers union is against any raise in the cap but they are risking losing to a truly devastating ballot question in November that would effectively remove the cap altogether for Boston.

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The little one started piano lessons

The bill also includes some much needed reform of the charter industry requiring parent participation on their boards and more transparency. The charter industry responded with much ballyhooing stating that they would be “shackled” by these new reforms. But if their scores are based on real educational pedagogy and not smoke and mirrors, a little transparency shouldn’t hurt their success at all. I would think that they would welcome the transparency in order to demonstrate that their education model isn’t a shell game.

I still have hope that adults will put aside their agendas and really take a look at what is in the thoughtful bill. If we are truly for the success of every child in the district then we need to craft legislation that helps all of our kids.