WHEN THE 3 o'clock bell rang in Boston schools last Friday, it may have signaled the end of the school year. Boston's city budget will have no more money for operating schools when this week's spring break ends on Monday. That shortage of money is caused as much by political feuds as by bad fiscal management, and for that reason Boston's version of "Budget Crisis," the drama playing in most big cities across the nation, is one spectacular worth the price of admission. Where else is the city council stalling a bond issue -- which would get the schools enough money to finish this year -- by making approval of the bond contingent on the council's having more power? And where else had the mayor formally proposed that he and the council pass a bond issue that would also do away with much of the school committee's powers?
Boston's problems go back to a referendum last November in which voters across the state agreed to limit property taxes to 2.5 percent of the value of proverty. Boston city officials estimate that when the approved referendum issue becomes law next July, tax revenues will be cut by almost 70 percent. With an impending cutback in revenue of that dimension, Boston's Mayor Kevin White says he is not going to let the public schools run over their budget, even if they intend to pay back the money next year. The money won't be there next year, he rightly points out. So the mayor is trying to limit the schools to a $210 million budget. But by last Friday, the school committee had already spent $210 million for this fiscal year, creating the crisis.
What cannot be ignored in all this is that Bostonians, according to the polls, believe that politicians are threatening the schools because they want last year's referendum limiting property taxes over-turned. The mayor believes that the public is wrong; the problem, he says, is that the school committee is wasting money as its budget increases despite declining student enrollment. The city council points the finger back at the mayor. It says he must be wasting money because he has a large staff and near-total control of the city budget. The mayor has an opinion of the council, too. He thinks it wants to keep the city's schools closed so it can pressure him to exchange some mayoral city-charter power for the right to go to the bond market. This name-calling and baiting goes on and on.
In the midst of this political madness no one should forget that there are 60,000 students in the Boston public schools who will be in the middle -- victims -- unless some settlement is reached. The Massachusetts Department of Education has filed suit asking that the court require the schools to open next week, regardless of fiscal problems. But even that cannot be done unless the mayor, the council and the school committee define the amount of the school system's budget overrun and decide how to pay the bill. It is obvious that the city's leaders must make peace. What is not so obvious is that the schools cannot have carte blanche to spend city money, and neither can the mayor if Boston is to avoid total ruin. Checks and balances on spending are needed. Boston is one city where changes have to be made in the way the city disburses its money before its fiscal crisis can come to an end.