As the Boston school system and the teachers union prepare to resume contract talks Tuesday, a watchdog group is urging the two sides to pursue proposals that would lengthen school days, overhaul the teacher evaluation and job-assignment systems, and replace guaranteed pay raises with merit increases.
The Boston Municipal Research Bureau, in a report it plans to release Monday, says such changes are necessary to boost the quality of teaching and learning so the school system can compete more aggressively with independently run charter schools, a sector of public education that could grow dramatically in the coming years.
Samuel Tyler, the bureau's president, said in an interview the group is concerned that the school system and the union will toss aside proposals for meaningful change as they race to reach an agreement before the current contract expires Aug. 31.
"I know there is an interest in wrapping up negotiations — and they need to be resolved in September — but at the same time without reforms it won't be a contract that's in the best interest of the Boston Public Schools and its future," Tyler said. "The resulting agreement needs to give confidence to the parents of Boston that the school system can be competitive with charter schools."
The contract talks, which began in February, have been taking place amid an intensifying public debate over a ballot question this November that would raise a state cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in Boston and other low-performing systems.
The charter schools have been exacting a financial toll on the Boston school system. More than 10,000 Boston students attend charter schools, taking with them millions of dollars in per-student state aid each year.
That transfer in aid — about $135 million for the next school year alone — has played a role in the school system's cutting programs and delaying extended days at about 20 schools. The school system also has raised the prospect of closing schools.
Charter school advocates, however, argue the school system doesn't need the money, because it has fewer students to educate.
The bureau, a government watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits, has been supportive of charter schools. But it has not taken a formal position on the ballot question because it is concerned about the financial impact, Tyler said.
The question would permit up to 12 new charter schools a year in the low-performing systems, which some education advocates have argued is unfettered growth.
Currently, no more than 18 percent of so-called "net school spending" in a low-performing district can go to charter-school tuition, a limit that could be ignored if the ballot question passes.
The Boston school system and the teachers union have set up an aggressive schedule for negotiations, agreeing to three full-day sessions this week and three more next week. The two sides are eager to come to agreement in hopes of avoiding the acrimony of years past, when negotiations dragged on for months or years after a contract expired.
Representatives for both the union and the school system said neither side would sacrifice substantive issues to speed up contract talks, and both expressed optimism about getting a contract that benefits everyone.
"I think when we have finished with the contract we will have addressed a number of the elements in the bureau's report, and we will have a better contract that moves the district forward," said Ross Wilson, deputy superintendent for administration and innovation.
Richard Stutman, the union president, said: "We are absolutely committed to improving our schools and the quality of education for our students.''
Neither side would discuss specific recommendations from the bureau, citing confidentiality rules, because some of the proposals are being discussed at the table.
In some cases, the recommendations would represent big changes to the way business is done in the Boston school system.
For instance, teachers for decades have received automatic pay raises based on years of experience and their level of education.
But the bureau believes that system provides little incentive for teachers to improve their craft and contends raises should be based on performance.
Such a move could lead to a reduction in the amount of annual salary increases for a teaching force where a regular classroom teacher makes on average $91,000 annually.
The bureau is also calling for eliminating seniority in deciding who gets let go from schools during budget cuts, speeding up the termination of ineffective teachers, and bolstering the process of evaluating teachers.
Mitchell Chester, state commissioner for elementary and secondary education, said it would be worthwhile for Boston to pursue the bureau's recommendations.
"Many of the recommendations in the Boston Municipal Research Bureau report are known to help turn around schools and districts," Chester said in a statement. "They are also among the approaches we have used in the three school districts and four schools that are under state receivership."