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Boston Public School central staff jobs at risk as new budget falls short

Martin Desmarais

This past week has been a difficult one for Boston Public Schools as officials proposed an initial budget that fails to keep up with rising costs and drops in state and federal funding — and also told central office staff that their jobs are not guaranteed after the end of this school year on June 30.

Overall, the $973 million BPS budget for fiscal year 2015 is a $36 million increase over last year’s budget, and raises the money given to schools by $5 million. But the challenge is that the city’s school system faces $60 million in rising costs and $32 million in declining state and federal revenue next year.

BPS Interim Superintendent John McDonough was quick to steer the budget concerns away from any impact on schools and students.

“Our most important task as educators is to provide each and every student with an education that will give them the opportunity for success in college and career, and that is what we have focused on in constructing next year’s budget,” McDonough said in a statement. “Resolving this challenge is about much more than balancing the budget. It is about rethinking our entire approach to education so we can align ourselves in a way that is smarter, sharper, more effective and much more coherent. This is an opportunity to make the Boston Public Schools much stronger.”

McDonough told the school committee last Wednesday night that, despite budget concerns, BPS would make new investments in areas that are important to improving the quality of education, including improving academic standards, new technologies, strengthening teacher and school leader development, implementing the new school choice system, ensuring access to its early education programs and offering as many extended learning time and out-of-school learning opportunities as possible.

The biggest target to deal with budget shortfalls is the BPS central office, which McDonough and his staff have targeted for over $20 million in reductions to try and make up ground with rising costs and funding declines.

McDonough put the 900 BPS administration employees, who work out of the school department’s downtown headquarters, on notice last Tuesday when he held a staff meeting and told them their jobs were not guaranteed beyond the current year.

He also sent out a staff memo on the issue.

McDonough wrote that BPS was grateful for Mayor Marty Walsh for increasing the budget by almost 4 percent but also that the city was not in a position to fully fund every dollar of the increasing cost, or replace every dollar of external revenue the school department is losing.

BPS’ tack with the unbalanced budget is to position the necessary cuts as a way to streamline the school department — and in particular the central office, which has often come under criticism for being too large.

“This challenge is about much more than balancing the budget. It is about rethinking our entire approach to education so we can align ourselves in a way that is smarter, sharper, more effective and much more coherent,” McDonough wrote in his memo.

“In other words, simply balancing the budget is not our objective. This is an opportunity to make the Boston Public Schools much stronger,” he added.

McDonough said his staff would be working closely in the long term with Mayor Walsh on a performance audit of every aspect of BPS, but in the short term officials will be looking closely in the next month at ways to cut costs.

And he sent a clear warning: “I need to inform all central office staff that at this time I cannot guarantee your employment beyond June 30. This extends to all central office employees, including my entire leadership team and me. We felt that the only equitable and transparent way to do this was to treat everyone the same. In the short term we will be making these choices with an eye toward the FY15 budget.”

“This is difficult. This is tough. But, it is also necessary. We, as we do with schools each year, are now calling on each of you to rethink our notions of service, of support, and of accountability. I know that we are up to this challenge. The budget process offers us an annual opportunity to reconsider the status quo and make better sense of how we accomplish the work of teaching and learning in every school. Our approach over the next several weeks will allow us to move forward, to strengthen our schools and ensure success for every student now and into the future,” McDonough wrote.

Mayor Walsh has come out publicly and supported BPS’ efforts to balance the budget with an eye toward restructuring the central office. Walsh acknowledged that, even with the increased school budget, there were still challenges the department was going to have to face and said reforming the central office would allow BPS to address the student and family need.

Aside from a proposed $22.3 million in budget cuts at the central office, BPS also highlighted several other areas of cost savings to the school committee last week.

These include: an $11 million correction in enrollments for next year; a $10 million saving in transportation costs; a $5 million decrease in health insurance premiums; and $1.6 million in classroom consolidation.

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