No side bets

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  March 26, 2008

The new superintendent of Boston’s Public Schools (BPS), Carol Johnson, dropped a bombshell this past week, declaring that her department has discovered an unanticipated budget problem so severe that millions of dollars’ worth of programs must be cut — some schools may even be forced to close.

For ambitious members of Boston’s City Council, it’s a perfect softball served over the plate: Tom Menino proposing to dramatically cut public-school programs. If there is going to be an opportunity to grandstand against the incumbent mayor on an issue, this should be it.

So far, however, councilors are holding their fire, awaiting the details that will come next month in Menino’s budget proposal. And with those pols restraining themselves, the news failed to register much public discussion.

By this time next month, however, things are bound to change. One city councilor rumored to have mayoral ambitions tells the Phoenix that he “definitely” will challenge Menino on the issue during council-budget hearings.

According to the BPS and Menino’s office, if no cuts are made, next year’s schools budget would be $846 million — eight percent above the current year’s allotment.

Menino wants to ask for $815 million — a four-percent increase — in the budget he will send to the City Council next month, so he is insisting that the school committee find $30.7 million to excise. This past week, committee members unveiled administrative cuts that get them halfway there, setting the stage for some $15 million in program cuts yet to be floated. That could include reductions in after-school programs and teachers’ aides, and even school closings.

The news didn’t make much of a splash outside of City Hall, but inside, it’s unleashed a tsunami of speculation. “There is like a fear-filled drama behind the scenes about what is going to get cut,” says one city councilor. “The rumors are just flying around here.”

Already, some are casting doubt about the veracity of the claims coming from Menino’s office about the size of the shortfall, in ways that suggest how contentious the coming budget hearings might be. “My gut says that they’re trying to manage expectations,” says one top council staffer. “Then the mayor gets to ride in with his budget and look like a hero.”

“Historically, when a new superintendent comes in, there’s always claims of a huge deficit,” along with a big budget request, says another council aide. “They know that the new person won’t be turned down.”

Menino’s people insist that the deficit is all too real. Indeed, Boston is hardly alone. All over the country, rising health-insurance and gasoline prices, combined with tightening state budgets, are straining to meet the demands of federal mandates. Miami-Dade County, in Florida, expects a $200 million deficit next year. San Francisco may be forced to lay off more than 500 teachers.

“It’s as real as real can be,” says John Connolly, newly named vice-chair of the City Council’s education committee. “There will be tough decisions on how to close the shortfall without ceding any ground on education.”

Whether the claims are real or inflated might make little difference when political stakes are high — and they don’t come higher than in school-budget debates. As vice-chair of the Ways & Means Committee, Michael Flaherty will almost certainly try to make political hay of any cuts Menino proposes. John Tobin, who has made education one of his central issues, will do the same.

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