In an abrupt shift in teacher contract negotiations, School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson retreated Wednesday from a sweeping proposal to add 45 minutes to Boston’s elementary, middle, and K-8 schools, and instead will pursue a narrower effort that would add two hours at a handful of low-performing schools.
Extending the school day had been a hallmark of Johnson’s push to secure substantial changes in the contract in an effort to reinvigorate city schools. But after two years of intense and exhaustive talks with the teachers union over a new contract, Johnson said it appeared that her proposal was going nowhere. The union had insisted that teachers be paid at a rate she said the city cannot afford, prompting her to pull the 45-minute proposal.
“While we started out wanting to have a broader opportunity for more students to get additional time, as you know time has remained a barrier in reaching a settlement,” Johnson said.
The shift marks the second time during contract talks that Johnson has narrowed the scope of her effort to lengthen the school day. Initially, she sought to add an extra half-hour at every elementary, middle, K-8, and high school. Then earlier this year, she dropped the high schools from her proposal and instead decided to pursue an extra 45 minutes at the remaining schools.
Under Johnson’s proposal, between five and 10 schools, not yet identified, could have their day extended by two hours for fall 2013.
Richard Stutman, the teachers union president, said the superintendent first floated the newest proposal by him Monday night.
“Quite frankly, I’m puzzled by her actions,” said Stutman, who emphasized that the union supports additional time.
Reaction to Johnson’s move was mixed among city school system supporters.
Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said he was “disappointed” that only a few schools would get additional time.
“It’s not the giant step in reform we were looking for,” said Tyler, faulting the union for asking for too much money.
“I don’t know if it’s a victory for the union,” Tyler added, “but it’s certainly not a victory for the students in the Boston public schools.”
The shift on extended time comes at a precarious point in teacher contract talks. In March, the two sides declared an impasse and sought intervention from the state’s Labor Relations Division, which appointed a mediator. Since then, the two sides, along with the mediator, have met just three times, most recently on Tuesday.
Cost proposals for extended time from both sides have varied during the talks. At times, the union has sought to have teachers paid at their contractual hourly rate for the extra time, which some teachers get at schools that already have extended days. The School Department has said that proposed increases in the overall salary scale more than compensate teachers for the extra time, although they eventually offered some additional money.
Now Johnson believes she has found a way around the union to add two hours to the school day at a handful of schools by taking advantage of a more than 25-year-old, rarely used provision of the teachers contract that allows a superintendent to unilaterally create Project Promise schools.
At Project Promise schools, a superintendent can mandate that all teachers work an extra two hours a day and up to three hours on Saturdays. Principals at these schools can also deviate from teacher contract rules in hiring teachers.
The program served as a national model for the extended school day movement when it began taking root in the 1980s, but only a handful of Boston middle schools adopted the program. It has faded away from all but one, the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury.
The exact number of schools will hinge on the School Department’s budget, because Project Promise can be costly.
Teachers are paid the contractual hourly rate for the extra time they work, which on average puts an additional $12,000 a year in the pockets of Timilty teachers. It is the same pay rate the teachers union has been pushing during negotiations under the extra-45-
minutes proposal at elementary, middle, and K-8 schools.
But Johnson said it is a worthwhile trade-off to get teacher contract negotiations moving on other fronts, such as overhauling the way teachers are evaluated, providing principals with more flexibility in hiring teachers, and settling on a new teacher salary scale.
“We have among the shortest school days in the nation,” Johnson said. “We believe there are some students who won’t be successful if not given additional time.”
Stutman said Johnson’s desire to expand the Project Promise program was curious. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has decided not to fund the extra time at the Timilty this fall due to low test scores. Johnson consequently cut the Timilty’s extra time roughly in half, making the announcement in June, and the teachers union filed a complaint with the Labor Relations Division this month over the reduction.
Johnson, however, said Wednesday that she has since decided to restore all the additional time at the Timilty and is planning to send letters to staff and families in coming days.
“She has caused an awful lot of confusion among parents,” said Stutman, who said he supports bringing Project Promise to more schools.
Paul Grogan — president of the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that has supported extra instruction time — praised Johnson for finding a way for at least some schools to extend the day.
“It’s not the answer, but I applaud the superintendent for making the move,” he said. “It will be very meaningful for the students in those schools that get the extra time.”