One of the most transformative hiring reforms introduced by interim Boston Public Schools Superintendent John McDonough was to give school principals more autonomy in building their teaching teams. To do so, McDonough had to sidestep seniority as a decisive factor in hiring. But the revamped teacher hiring process, now in its second year, also created a conundrum — a growing surplus of veteran teachers who are not hired but remain on the district’s payroll at a cost of several million dollars. What to do with these sidelined teachers can only be resolved via legislative action — and that should happen sooner rather than later.
For years, the Boston Public Schools used a less-than-optimal method of filling teaching positions. Seniority ruled: Principals had to hire from a group of tenured, veteran teachers — the so-called excess pool — who were looking for new jobs in the system. But McDonough found a clever fix: an "open posting" provision included in the teachers' union contract that allowed principals to recruit from outside the system and bypass the seniority rule. In a widely praised move, McDonough "open posted" about 1,000 jobs in early March of last year.
Principals were now empowered to hire early and quickly. In previous years, BPS would hire late — the district would fill less than 10 percent of its open teaching jobs from March through June, and about 85 percent in July and August, right before the start of the school year. But last year, three-quarters of the open jobs were filled from March to June.
The move suddenly made Boston teaching positions more competitive. Principals now have access to a more robust market of teacher talent — the most important factor in driving school achievement. Ideally, according to the New Teacher Project, school districts should complete their hiring by May 1, and no later than June 1, in order to capture the best applicants. According to a BPS internal survey of principals and headmasters last fall, 95 percent of those polled agreed that autonomy increased their ability to hire high-quality candidates.
But the new, smart hiring practices in Boston came with a $30 million pricetag. By converting all available jobs into open postings in order to sidestep seniority, the schools had to pay the outside or non-tenured teacher an extra stipend of $1,250. At the same time, more than 70 unassigned teachers, or less than 2 percent of the total BPS teacher force, were left last year in the excess pool, costing the schools $6 million. And that surplus of tenured teachers is only expected to grow this year.
While there is no legislative proposal on the table, Sam Tyler from the Boston Municipal Research Bureau has suggested that an update in the state law is needed so that districts will be able to dismiss those tenured teachers who remain without a permanent position after two hiring cycles. Mayor Martin Walsh has acknowledged that the current situation is unsustainable: Paying for teachers who aren't in classrooms is not a good business model. During an appearance on Boston Herald Radio last month, Walsh said he would tackle this issue next year, when the next teachers' union contract is crafted. But the union has historically not been reform-oriented. Legislators on Beacon Hill need to pay close attention to this issue, and be prepared to update the state law that protects tenured teachers so as to allow districts like Boston to keep hiring from the best possible talent pool.