It is generally advisable that we spend more time relishing what we have in life than what we do not. The same applies to our city’s schools — we’re lucky to have such bright and talented students, passionate and committed teachers, excellent arts and athletics programs, and strong ties to New Bedford heritage and roots, through our innovative Sea Lab or our collaboration with the Whaling Museum and Zeiterion Theatre. However, this year’s budget process has me straying from my own advice. While we do indeed have much to celebrate, I find myself lamenting what we do not have, and why we as a community must continue to fail to provide even the most basic resources for those exceptional students and dedicated educators.
The School Committee’s budget recommendation for the upcoming fiscal year is $120.4 million. If you’ve followed the process, you know that this figure was formulated by taking requests from the district’s principals and managers to reflect what they reasonably need to educate and serve the students in their care. This totaled over $125 million. Knowing well the fiscal context in which we live, the School Committee instructed the administration to cut this further, and they did, coming back at $120.4 million after the painful reduction of the most rudimentary of items, from crayons and paper folders and routine technology purchases to the maintenance budget — even as our custodial staff struggles to keep up with the oldest stock of schools in the commonwealth and after a harsh winter that saw them unfairly maligned for their performance. Citing the fiscal realities affecting the city budget, the mayor recommended a school budget of $118.8 million to the City Council for its consideration this June.
While I can certainly understand his very practical opinion and respect his dogged advocacy for the city’s fiscal health, there are a few broader questions that frustrate me dearly as a proud alumnus, a resident and a School Committee member. First, why does this have to be our fiscal reality? Why can’t we, as a community, commit to providing the resources our schools need, not just to function, but to thrive? Why must we constantly settle for less than other communities? The reinvention of New Bedford starts with education. We should not succumb to the same challenges and pitfalls that plague other Gateway Cities — at least not laying down anyway.
A school system that has what it needs to prepare an educated population of the future is a most worthwhile investment — an assertion that few will argue against but seemingly even fewer will argue ardently for.
Here’s an example that illustrates the disadvantageous position our students are placed in as a result: We are the only school district in the state that has an “early release” day every week, in which students go home at 1 p.m. on Fridays, an embarrassment that deprives our elementary students of 60 hours of learning a year — 60 hours that kids in other cities spend in front of a teacher. In restoring that time, our students would also get the same amount of art, music and phys-ed as their peers in other communities. Don’t they deserve it? How can we deny this?
The old excuses simply aren’t there. The current administration has managed the budget masterfully. Gone are the days of shortfalls, deficits, wastes and scandals. The assertions that the district is too “top heavy” are myth. We spend a smaller percentage of our budget on administrative salaries than the overwhelming majority of the state. Every cent of the $120.4 million budget can be defended and justified for its impact on student learning. And while some school turnaround methods can be contentious and frustrating to those of us who often disagree with the state-mandated practice, they’re even more expensive. We can’t afford to have any more schools slip under their Level 4 or Level 5 authority by underfunding them while we still have a chance to right the ship ourselves without the heavy-handed intervention of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
This investment and reinvention through education has the potential to transform. Only when people are trying to move into New Bedford because of the schools, rather than out, will you see property values rise significantly. Surely that takes some effort on the front end, but it prepares our next generation for bigger and better things. Isn’t that what we all want? We’re trapped in a vicious circle in which underfunded schools create a skills gap that feeds into the income inequality that leads to more or further underfunded schools. It’s time we step up to remedy the situation.
It is for these reasons I support and applaud my colleague Bruce Oliveira for his bold efforts to get the City Council to consider adopting a provision of state law that would allow the council to consider the budget recommendation of the School Committee independently of that of the mayor, this year and in the future. I hope they do vote in favor of this provision, as City Councils in other communities have in the past. While their approval of that provision does not guarantee it, I hope that later in June, the Council gives the school administration a chance to justify the expenditures included in the $120.4 million budget. While I fear we still might see another year of more of the same, another $118.8 million, the bare minimum our schools — our kids — can receive, I’m hoping for something different. And I hope you are too.