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Editorial

When Boston principals have freedom to hire, kids benefit

(Bartek Zyczynski/Shutterstock)

At the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain, there were about 15 teaching positions open when hiring season began earlier this year. Principal Katie Grassa, however, is proud to say that she filled all those posts by May 30 — quite fast for a public school in Boston, where traditionally 90 percent of teacher hiring had been completed after July 1. Late hiring had put the Curley and other Boston schools at a competitive disadvantage, by allowing charter schools or other districts to scoop up the best candidates.

The Curley reflects the success of the city’s controversial early hiring initiative, now in its third year. As contract negotiations resume this week with the Boston Teachers Union, maintaining principals’ new flexibility in hiring has to be a top priority for the system. Meanwhile, the union has a chance to show it’s responsive to the system’s changing needs.

In the past, principals had to pick from a pool of internal candidates first, which dragged out the hiring process, left principals to choose from teachers whom other principals had turned down, and shuffled some teachers into slots they didn’t necessarily want. The district took advantage of a loophole in the teachers union contract that gave school administrators more freedom to bypass internal candidates when filling classroom openings. Lo and behold, for this upcoming school year, 82 percent of all teaching vacancies were filled before June 1. Of those hires, 41 percent were teachers of color — a priority for a district with a diverse student body.

The new hiring strategy has one costly byproduct. The teachers who used to have first dibs on vacant jobs still receive a paycheck, even if they aren’t selected for any classrooms. Under the state’s tenure law, such teachers must generally be placed in support posts such as substitutes or co-teachers.

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There will be about 100 such teachers this year, at a price tag of $8 million. Those salaries pose a substantial burden. To save money, the school district is seeking contract provisions that would allow it to fire unassigned tenured teachers who aren’t even applying for jobs — that’s about half of them, the district says.

Without a fair way of phasing out teachers who repeatedly end up without a classroom, the early hiring initiative will become unsustainable in the long term, and that would be a huge mistake.

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The district and the BTU have offered extensive support, including resume and interview workshops, for teachers without classroom assignments . In some cases, teachers lacked credentials that aligned with current educational needs, so the district offered to pay for special-education or English as a Second Language licenses. Only two took the offer, a system official said.

As teacher unions statewide seek to fend off a ballot initiative to allow more charter schools, a measure of flexibility from the Boston Teachers Union would help show that the collective bargaining process can be a way of solving educational problems — not an obstacle to doing so. But the greater argument for a contract change comes from the experience of principals like Grassa, who see the good that happens when school leaders and teachers have the latitude to choose each other. “Before, there was a limited pool of talent to choose from,” Grassa says. “The importance of having the choice cannot be overstated.”