Cuts in BPS budget hint at bigger $ trouble

February 20, 2009
By

David Taber

Few city unions agree to skip raises

If the recently released preliminary 2010 Boston Public Schools (BPS) budget is any indicator, the outlook for the city workforce, and city services, will be bleaker than City Hall’s recent projections suggest.

Meanwhile, since Mayor Thomas Menino announced it last month, a request from City Hall that unionized city employees defer their 2010 pay raises has met with little enthusiasm from the unions.

Wages and benefits regularly account for about half of the city’s annual expenditures. If workers in the 41 unions representing city employees were to hold off on their pay raises next year, it would save the city about $55 million, but so far, only two unions have signed on.

As part of recently completed contract negotiations, the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation agreed to a deferral. That will save the city about $1 million next year, Lisa Signori, head of the city’s Administration and Finance Department said in a press briefing late last month. In what city spokesperson Nick Martin described as a largely symbolic gesture, the Boston School Police Patrolman’s Union, representing about 60 officers, also agreed to the freeze this month.

Fuzzy projections

But the proposed $787 million 2010 school department budget is a much bigger fish. That preliminary budget is $107 million short of the projected $894 million it would cost to maintain level services next year. The 2010 budget proposal includes cutting over 900 jobs. Over 400 other jobs could be saved if school unions agree to the pay freeze.

Richard Stutman, head of the over 7,000-member Boston Teacher’s Union—the largest union on the city payroll—questioned whether it is fair for the school system to take such a large cut from its budget. The BPS budget accounted for 34 percent of the city’s expenditures in fiscal year 2009, but the $107 million shortfall it is facing is about two-thirds of the city’s projected $140 million 2010 shortfall, he pointed out.

“Something isn’t right,” he said.

Reiterating information in a budget memo penned by BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson and presented to the School Committee early this month, BPS Spokesperson Chris Horan said the $107 million number represents both a $46.2 million decrease in funding that is equivalent to the school system’s share of the city budget and $61.4 million projected increase in costs.

Nick Martin, a spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office, said increased costs for providing level services have been factored into the $140 million budget gap projection.

But Meredith Weenick, associate director of the administration and finance office, said the $140 million projection was a rough starting point for the city. “It is a forecast based on our best estimate of revenues and major expenditure categories,” she said.

The BPS budget is “much more detailed” line item budget, she said.

Across the board, city departments have been asked to take 7 percent cuts in their 2010 budgets, but because of its size and intricacy, the school department has only been asked to take the 5.5 percent cut, she said. The $140 million “will end up having been a low estimate” of how deep city cuts will go, she said.

Weenick told the Gazette that administration and finance would likely not revise its $140 million estimate moving forward.

Pay Freeze

Regardless of the relative usefulness of the $140 million number over time, the city still hopes to save a big chunk of it by convincing city unions to take the pay freeze.

Stutman told the Gazette he is not enthusiastic. “Reports of a wage freeze are greatly premature,” he said.

At the January press briefing, Signori said that while the city would not guarantee that jobs would not be cut if unions agreed to the pay freeze, “Unions that do agree, the savings from the wage freeze will go to saving jobs from their workforce.”

Another administration and finance staffer, spokesperson Jacque Goddard, said that dedicating savings to specific unions would not hamper the city’s ability to look at layoffs in strategic terms that consider what city services are most pressing. “Just because [a union] agrees to a one-year freeze does not mean no member of that union will be laid off in 2010,” she said. “It might mean four [workers] are laid off instead of six.”

It will be impossible to estimate how deep personnel cuts from different departments will have to be until department heads put forward their 2010 budgets, she said. “There might be creative ideas—maybe we will not have to look so much at layoffs,” she said. The school department budget, among other things, proposes cutting the equivalent of about 918 full-time positions, including about 400 teachers and about 300 support and school administration staff positions.

Those cuts would save BPS about $83 million, leaving a gap of about $25 million. The gap could be met through the wage freeze, according to the memo. The wage freeze could save the school system about $29.4 million, the equivalent of 335 teachers and 70 BPS staffers, according to the memo.

While charts in a budget memo presented by Johnson to the school committee correlate the $83 million directly to the number of proposed job cuts from different areas, BPS spokesperson Chris Horan told the Gazette the line items encompass personnel and non-personnel costs.

Other options

Other options outlined in the memo for making up the remaining $25 million include rethinking the school assignments process and busing. That currently costs the schools about $70 million a year.

The city is contemplating “a dramatic change that would bring in additional savings,” Horan said. Boston’s school choice program, originally adopted under a controversial court order in the 1970s, give high school students the option to attend any school in the city. Reducing school zone size and developing strategies to encourage students at all grade levels to enroll in schools within a one-mile “walk zone” of where they live are also mentioned in the memo.

But savings will depend on the scope of the reforms, when they are instituted and how many students are “grandfathered in,” Horan said.

As a last resort, Johnson may also revisit school closings, he said.

BPS already plans to close and consolidate a number of schools as part of its Pathways to Excellence plan adopted last year, but, “We will not succeed in providing every student access to music, arts, and the full menu of academic experiences necessary for closing the achievement gap, reaching academic proficiency, and ensuring every student is college-ready when our resources are spread too thin,” the memo says.

Horan said the recently passed federal stimulus package and additional revenue sources the state could also help close the school systems budget gap. That could include a 2 percent local option meals tax. Governor Deval Patrick proposed a 1 percent meals tax over two-years ago and Mayor Menino has constantly lobbied for the 2 percent version.

A City Hall press statement released Wednesday says preliminary estimates suggest the stimulus bill—officially the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—will provide the city $69 million in education funding over the next two years. That funding will not all go to BPS though. “A portion of this funding will be allocated to Title I-eligible parochial and charter schools,” the statement says.

The police department could receive $5 million from the bill and the Boston Housing Authority $30 million for capital, maintenance and energy efficiency upgrades. The city’s summer youth jobs program could receive an estimated $2 million.

State Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez sounded a cautionary note regarding the meals tax last week, “Even if the meals tax passes—which I think there is a good chance it could—it doesn’t mean we are out of the woods,” he said. “There is no guarantee that the money goes directly to schools.”

Stutman said he wants to see the city redouble its efforts to bring in revenue. “The issue isn’t spending too much, it’s receiving too little,” he said.

In addition to the meals tax, Stutman said, the city should be moving faster on reexamining the payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) that non-profits, which do not pay property taxes, negotiate with the city. Over half of the property in Boston is owned by non-profits, 2007 PILOT payments to the city totaled about $30.75 million. Property taxes are the city’s single biggest source of revenue, regularly netting it well over $1 billion.

The mayor recently set up a task force to look at PILOT payment issues.

Meanwhile, citing an unnamed source, a recent article in the West Roxbury Transcript said in the city used a list naming more than 25 officers violating union contract residency requirements to get the Boston Superior Officers Federation to agree to the pay freeze. A residency compliance case against Roxbury Police Sergeant Michael Hanson was subsequently dismissed, the paper reported.

John Dunlap, the City’s director of labor relations, denied that residency issues were used as a bargaining chip in the wage freeze discussions. “The City reached a four year agreement with the Superior Officers Union that included the wage delay, health insurance changes, enhanced drug testing and other language items. As part of that agreement the Union received the same ten-year residency language as 22 other City unions. The sergeant in question had already worked for the City for ten years and for that reason was exempt from the requirement,” Dunlap said in an e-mail to the Gazette.

Superior Officers president John Gillespie did not respond to Gazette requests for comment.

John Ruch contributed to the article.

*The print version of this story contained incorrect calculations of proposed reductions the city’s 2010 fiscal year budget.

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