Boston schools face early closing as city's education funds dwindle

Boston, which opened the nation's first public school system more than 150 years ago, may become the nation's first financially distressed major city to involuntarily close schools because of a shortage of money.

The city had braced for a system-wide school closing Feb. 8, after the city comptroller said the system had run out of money. But the closing was forestalled when city and school fiscal officers "found" $10 million to keep classes running, possibly until mid- March.

As a result, schools remained open to Boston's 65,000 public school students.

But Mayor Kevin H. White says schools will close the day that money runs out unless the Boston School Committee is able to negotiate more funds from state and city officials.

The mayor has designated a $195 million 1980-81 budget for city schools -- the same level as 1979-80 and the lowest possible funding allowed under state law. He has refused to revise his position and also has balked at paying for a School Committee last August. Teachers are working for last year's wages. The Mayor justifies his position on the basis of trying to force the school board to trim from its budget what he sees as fat.

For the 1981-82 school year, the hardpressed school system faces the impact of the passage of Proposition 2 1/2, which will drastically cut Boston's property taxes, the basic source of city revenue.

The school department, which is spending at a rate of an estimated $57 million over the mayor's budget, has filed legal action to force White to finance the teachers' $15 million pay raises. This case awaits a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling.

In another suit the school department seeks $46 million to fund the state-mandated special-needs program for children with physical or academic handicaps.

A crucial date for city schools may be Feb. 24, when the State Board of Education meets. State Education Commissioner Gregory Anrig, noting that the Massachusetts pays 52 percent of Boston's public school budget, says he may ask the state board to file legal action to force classes to remain open the legally required 180 days and to require White to release city funds needed to keep schools going.

John D. O'Bryant, who was elected school committee president six weeks ago, has met or scheduled meetings with White, Commissioner Anrig, state Senate President William Bulger (D), state House Speaker Thomas McGee (D), and others to try to block the closing of schools.

Mr. O'Bryant says if schools are forced to close, he will propose legislation asking the state to provide emergency funds to reopen them. Although no such emergency has ever arisen here in relation to schools. O'Bryant says a precedent for such financing was set when the legislature recently authorized funding of a $40 million Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority deficit to keep trains and buses running.

Noting that New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities are running public schools with huge deficits, O'Bryant says:

"It will cost Boston more to close schools than to keep them open, even with a $57 million deficit. Count the costs of closing -- vandalism, security for more than 160 idle plants, continued maintenance or deterioration of buildings, unemployment insurance, unsupervised kids in the streets, increased crime by idle adolescents. We cannot afford to shut down our school system."

Boston public school superintendent Paul Kennedy details a variety of steps planned to reduce current expenses. These range from cuts in administrative and teacher staffs to skimping on music, art, physical education, science, and extracurricular programs. But these would scissor only $7 million -- a mere dent in the imposing shortfall.

Some sources hint that teachers may be asked to forego their raises if the state high court rules in their favor. BTU president Kathleen Kelley says teachers would reject that proposal.

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