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Shortfall may lead to closing of ‘handful’ Boston schools

Targeted facilities to be named soon; deficit in budget could reach $51m

Interim Superintendent John McDonough is proposing to close a “handful” of schools under a preliminary budget proposal for the next school year that he presented to the School Committee on Wednesday night.

The $1 billion spending plan also calls for other cuts, such as streamlining menu offerings in school cafeterias and possibly ending bus service for most seventh-graders. The latter measure was approved by the School Committee last year but was put on hold in light of growing opposition from parents and elected officials.

The cuts, McDonough said in an interview before the meeting, are an unfortunate reality the school system must face as the cost of doing business rises faster than revenue, creating a potential shortfall of $42 million to $51 million.

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He called the situation frustrating, noting the system has had to cut spending each of the past several years, and said it requires “difficult trade-off decisions to position us for long-term success.”

The shortfall also comes as the school system has pursued some costly initiatives, such as expanding pre-kindergarten, increasing the number of schools with extended days, and giving schools greater latitude to hire teachers from the outside, which in turn leaves veteran teachers without job assignments.

McDonough said the targeted schools will be named in the next two weeks. The proposal is expected to stir emotions and considerable public debate.

The school system, he said, set three criteria in determining which ones would close: academic performance, enrollment trends, and the popularity of the school among families during school registration.

He declined to say before the meeting how many schools would close.

Boston last closed schools at the end of the 2010-11 school year, when it shut down or consolidated about 18 of them.

Since then, however, the school system has reopened many of those buildings as it has expanded pre-kindergarten and responded to a surge in enrollment in the lower grades, including many toddlers on the autism spectrum or who have other disabilities.

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Federal law requires school systems to start educating students in those latter categories as soon as they turn 3.

The school system also had to reopen some buildings, such as the former Hyde Park High School, because the city was still receiving state reimbursements for construction projects there. The state had said it would stop the payments if the buildings remained unused.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, expressed skepticism about the need to close schools in an e-mail response to a Globe question about the proposal.

“Without an exhaustive look at the full range of possibilities that could cut costs it is premature to look at school closings,” Stutman wrote.

“The entire school community — parents, students, and staff — needs to be involved in any effort that seeks cost savings.”

The spending cuts are coming, though Mayor Martin J. Walsh has indicated that he would increase the city’s appropriation to the school system by 3 or 4 percent.

However, the school system is facing millions of dollars in reduction of state and federal aid. McDonough said Boston is more vulnerable to federal cuts because students here are not considered to be as poor as students in other systems across the nation.

Cutting school buses for seventh graders will hinge on recommendations from a middle school transportation task force that the mayor appointed last year to look at more cost efficient ways to transport those students, McDonough said.

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The prospect of closing schools generated little reaction from the School Committee.

Michael O’Neill, school board chairman, noted that students, parents, and staff “get quite passionate” during school closure deliberations and asked the School Department to provide members with additional data, such as enrollment by grade level, to better understand the proposal.

Other members focused on different aspects of the budget proposal, such as transportation.

Member Meg Campbell, who runs a charter school, urged the school system to pursue changes to state law to stop the practice of busing charter school students citywide and instead restrict busing to a more confined region around the school. She also encouraged the system to do more fund-raising — an idea that resonated with other members.

“This is a city with deep pockets that we are not tapping into,” Campbell said.


James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.