Interim Superintendent John McDonough, confronting another tough budget year and calls to overhaul the School Department’s central office, told hundreds of school employees Tuesday that their jobs will not be guaranteed beyond June 30.
McDonough, who is still crafting a restructuring plan, said he did not know how many positions could ultimately be eliminated, but said the cuts could be significant. The warning was issued to almost the entire central office staff, including all members of McDonough’s executive team, and did not apply to staffs at individual schools. He said he hoped to have the number finalized in the coming weeks.
McDonough said he needed to alert staff now to comply with deadlines under some union contracts and so that employees could have ample opportunity to explore other job opportunities.
The proposal is also part of McDonough’s school budget proposal, which he will submit to the School Committee on Wednesday. But he said the move transcends the budget.
“It’s about how do we structure the Boston public schools to be in a stronger position for success,” he said “It will challenge us to rethink [the school system] as an organization and how we more effectively support schools.”
McDonough acknowledged that the warning carries some risks, potentially causing talented and committed employees to leave the school system before a decision is made about their positions. He also said he spared some positions tied to central office that provide direct services to schools, such as school psychologists and nurses. The move comes weeks after Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced he would be ordering “performance audits” of various city agencies with an eye to identifying efficiencies.
Walsh said Tuesday that he supported the effort to restructure the School Department’s central office.
“While we will be increasing [the School Department’s] budget this year, even though we are asking other departments to cut, there are some tough fiscal realities we have to face,” Walsh said in a statement. “I’m confident that Interim Superintendent McDonough and his team are focused on being responsive to the concerns of the staff while reforming the central office to be even more nimble to address what our students and families need.”
School Department headquarters, on Court Street in downtown Boston, has long been criticized by some politicians, parents, and residents as a potentially oversized bureaucracy in need of downsizing, an issue that emerged in last year’s mayoral race.
But some educators and a watchdog organization say that those criticisms are unfair and that the department in recent years has been reducing central office staff to avoid deep cuts in classrooms. They question how much more cutting can occur.
“Central office is generally the area the School Department pushes to cut,” said Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits. “That has been the case for the last several years, and there’s not a lot of room left to cut.”
School officials were unable to provide data Tuesday about how staffing levels have changed in the central office over the last few years.
Richard Stutman — president of the Boston Teachers Union, which represents a few dozen central office employees that could be affected — characterized McDonough’s warning to staff as an “extraordinarily cautious” step as he attempts to balance next year’s budget. Stutman urged the Legislature to increase educational aid to cities and towns.
“We can’t solve the problem by reshuffling a few bodies,” he said. “The real problem is with local aid.”
The school system is struggling to maintain services and programs for the next school year, even though it is expected to have a budget increase.
While most city agencies are being directed to cut spending by 1 percent, Walsh is allowing the school system to increase its spending by 4 percent, enabling McDonough to propose $973 million in spending for the next school year.
But that amount is not enough, school officials say, to keep up with the rising costs of salaries, benefits, and other expenses or to compensate for the loss of millions of dollars in state and federal aid.
McDonough said he is attempting to identify $19 million in cuts to balance next year’s budget, a task that should be completed before the School Committee votes on the spending plan in March.
In overhauling the central office, McDonough said he will look at ways to consolidate departments. For instance, in the fall he combined human resources with the office of educator effectiveness, which oversaw the implementation of a new educator evaluation system and teacher training programs.
The restructuring comes as the School Committee seeks a new superintendent, who may introduce another set of changes to the running of the School Department headquarters.
But McDonough said the School Department needs to change now. “It is not about us or me or a future superintendent,” he said. “It’s about the kids who come into our schools every single day.
“They can’t wait for a new superintendent; they can’t wait for me or for us to do something on a time frame that is convenient for adults.”