The Boston public school system is appealing to business leaders and philanthropists to help underwrite a $25 million campaign to attract, retain, and improve its teachers and principals.
The effort began quietly a few months ago and has already secured $3 million in commitments from donors. School officials aim to raise the remaining amount over the next three years, and the School Department itself has kicked in $6 million.
Last week, Interim Superintendent John McDonough and his personnel chief, Ross Wilson, convened a downtown meeting with about 100 members of the philanthropic, nonprofit, and business communities to appeal for more money.
“We know we can’t do it alone in order to make transformational changes,” McDonough said after the session.
Although Boston schools have turned to private donors in the past, the latest fund-raising campaign represents a more aggressive approach by McDonough, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and others to secure outside money as the system grapples with state and public pressure to boost the quality of its schools while also contending with budget cuts.
Boston is among a growing number of large urban systems nationwide turning to private corporations and charitable organizations to pay for an assortment of needs such as computers, programs, and staffing.
“I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization for large urban systems. “Big city school districts in particular have had to turn to these kinds of fund-raising efforts more and more over the last five or eight years or so because of the downturn in the economy and the irregular revenue streams they now have.”
Boston, for instance, faces a $32 million loss in federal, state, and private grants for the coming school year. That includes $15.4 million from President Obama’s Race to the Top program, which helped pay for teacher-development initiatives.
The meeting Wednesday was held downtown in the auditorium of Bank of America’s regional headquarters. Walsh kicked off the event, emphasizing his commitment to reforming the system and his support of McDonough’s vision.
Robert Gallery, the Massachusetts president of Bank of America and cochairman of the search for a permanent superintendent, organized the event. Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, cohosted with Peter and Carolyn Lynch of the Lynch Foundation. The Lynch Foundation has pledged $1 million, McDonough said.
Grogan said the Boston Foundation will also make a donation but has not declared the amount.
“We think it’s a very important project and deserving of financial support,’’ Grogan said in a phone interview. “We’ll do something significant.”
Wilson, the schools personnel chief, said the gathering was the first time officials held such a large meeting to discuss their goals, although the department has been appealing to individual donors since November. A list of those who attended the meeting was not made public.
The donations being sought will go toward training and recruitment programs for teachers and principals. About 4,300 of the system’s 10,000 employees are teachers, serving 57,000 students at 128 schools.
The effort will also help pay for an initiative launched earlier this year that allows principals dissatisifed with the school system’s internal pool of candidates to hire teachers from outside.
“Here is the goal: excellent teachers in every school, in every classroom, every single day,’’ McDonough said.
Grogan said McDonough is eager to change the hiring process to improve Boston’s chances of getting better teachers.
“For decades, the Boston public schools placed itself at a severe disadvantage with other school districts in the competition for talent,’’ Grogan said.
To give principals the flexibility to hire the candidates they want, the school system is taking advantage of a provision in the teachers union contract that allows the system to classify a position as requiring a special skill or extra duty — enabling the hiring of outside candidates while internal applicants are still seeking positions.
For instance, the winning candidate might also have to do tutoring after school, but would receive an extra $1,250 stipend in return, Wilson said. The school system anticipates these extra stipends could collectively add up to $1.2 million, according to a school budget presentation this winter.
The average teacher salary in Boston is about $88,000.
The hiring initiative has faced opposition from the Boston Teachers Union, and the issue is in arbitration. The union contends the open postings — allowing for the early hiring of external candidates — were intended to be used only in limited situations and not for all job openings.
“The teachers who are looking for work are not teachers endangered of being terminated for cause,” said Richard Stutman, president of the teachers union. “They are coming back from maternity leaves or departing schools going through progammatic changes. These are teachers trained and vetted by other seasoned principals. To ask them to wait any longer is disrespectful to them, and by no means are we going to find new teachers right out of college who are better.”
Stutman said Bank of America should use its money to prevent home foreclosures.
The hiring initiative could come with one costly downside: Dozens of teachers already on the payroll could end up without a classroom assignment this fall because they were passed over by the principals.
As of now, school officials anticipate that 75 to 150 teachers — even those with good performance reviews — could have no classroom assignments this fall, potentially costing the school system $6.6 million to $13.2 million. Because they have permanent teacher status, they are guaranteed jobs under the union contract, meaning even if they don’t have positions they will continue to collect salaries.
But school officials insist they will find those teachers positions, including filling in for instructors on maternity leave or creating additional classrooms at overcrowded grade levels.
Some teachers with areas identified for improvement in their evaluations could work in classrooms with high-quality teachers so they can gain additional training and guidance to improve their craft, Wilson said.
“There’s always a need for teachers in the system,” he said.
This has been a big hiring season for the school system. It has posted nearly 1,000 teaching positions for September and has made offers so far to 717 job applicants, including internal and external candidates.
Principals said changes in the hiring process have accelerated hiring. Previously, schools were often restricted to internal candidates who bid on the jobs in a process that often dragged on for months.
William Thomas, headmaster of Charlestown High School, said he has filled the jobs he had posted by March 1 and is seeking applicants for three other positions that opened up later.
He said 147 people applied for a history teaching position. In the end, he hired six teachers already in the Boston school system, two recent graduates of the Boston Teacher Residency Program, and an outside candidate.
“The more choices you have, the better chance you’ll get better candidates,” Thomas said.
Meghan E. Irons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.