For what seems like an eternity, Boston Public Schools (BPS) had to make funding decisions based on limited resources, but with nearly half a billion dollars coming to the district over the next few years, many educators and education non-profits are urging careful planning right now for how to best use this rare infusion of cash to schools.
Will Austin, of the Boston Schools Fund, said the influx of money comes from many different sources, but all of it should be carefully planned for right now to support students in the district in the most meaningful way.
“Not all of the money is coming all at once, but if you think about it, together it’s about a half a billion dollars,” he said. “That’s about an extra $10,000 per kid. Think about what an extra $10,000 per kid could get you. For once, we’re not talking about kids in Boston losing resources for education, but gaining resources.
“If you lived in a household and someone in the home got a 33 percent raise, it’s an incredible increase in money,” he continued. “What we’re concerned about at the moment is the federal dollars don’t have any real process or engagement around them. It’s not the usual process where it goes through the School Committee and the City Council votes on it. That’s not how it works. The question is what is the transparency and how will the stakeholders know if that money is spent on what’s important to families and education.”
Already, in the spring of 2020, BPS got $32 million as part of the first CARES Act to buy things like PPE and other COVID safeguards. In December 2020 and January 2020, the second CARES Act delineated $123 million to BPS for COVID relief. Now, in the most recent plan, BPS is slated to get approximately $260 million. That alone makes up around $415 million in federal funding that has or will come to the district.
Then there is also the first round of Student Opportunity Act (SOA) Funding that is slated to be anywhere from $10 million to $25 million from the state, then the second year of the $100 million commitment to BPS from the City is also to be considered. Adding that to the federal dollars – all of which is over and above the annual operating budget – and that makes up around $475 million coming to the district over the next three years.
Austin said the federal money does have some very specific uses that guide how they can be spent, as does the SOA dollars from the state. The City commitments have fewer guidelines around how they can be spent.
Right now, the City Council has put together a special committee to look at the expenditure of all new federal monies, including the BPS federal dollars. That Committee is chaired by Councilor Michael Flaherty, and the Vice Chair is Charlestown Councilor Lydia Edwards.
Supt. Brenda Cassellius said they will be engaging with students, families and stakeholders for what is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for BPS.
“We are excited to have this once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the needs of our students who have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID pandemic,” said Supt. Cassellius. “We are looking forward to engaging with our students, families and key stakeholders to leverage our collective efforts throughout Boston to address, return strong, recover and reimagine the Boston Public Schools.”
Austin said his non-profit – which has been around for six years, and prior to that he was an educator in Boston – is advocating for being prudent with the money. While some things should be put on the fast track, other things should roll out slower and carefully – and everything should be aimed at helping students and families.
“You do have to be prudent,” he said. “You don’t want to start things you can’t afford three or four years from now. At the same time, there are things that schools need now and could be deployed quickly with this money.”
For instance, Austin said they would advocate using City Year/AmeriCorps tutors for one year to be assigned to students that need help catching up on what has been lost to long-term remote schooling.
Some immediate concerns, he said, also revolve around mental health services and social-emotional health.
“There is some important mental health stuff that needs to happen in the first year or two,” he said. “They need to do screening of students immediately one, two or three times. You have to do that now because we can’t wait to see how much interrupted learning kids have suffered.”
He said there should also be some priorities for high school kids, as they have been out of school in-person the longest, and likely won’t be able to return for very long this year when they do go back.
“They will need social-emotional help now and in the year’s ahead,” he said.
Austin pointed to history to make his case for helping students in new and different ways, noting that students that missed large amounts of school in 1918 due to the Spanish Flu suffered most of their lives as a result.
Studying that demographic from 1918, he said kids that missed school due to the Spanish Flu had greater rates of not finishing high school, of making less money than their peers throughout their lifetime, and of ending up in jail.
“If we know that has happened before, then we cannot think it won’t happen again,” he said. “This is not a one-year thing. It’s going to be a lot of money that’s needed and a lot of years.”
Austin said there will also be good uses of money for investing in one-time infrastructure improvements – such as removing lead pipes from buildings to provide safe drinking water, and making the schools more technologically solid to better accommodate some type of remote schooling moving forward.
All of that said, Austin advised that parents, students and families should be demanding a process from BPS on how to spend this infusion of money to best support the young people so there is no repeat of the after-effects of 1918.
“We have a lot more money and not the same exact requirements on how to spend it,” he said. “There is no mechanism to have a specific conversation in any school district, including Boston, for planning the use of this money.”