‘More than 6’ public schools in Boston likely to close

Mayor Thomas Menino’s education chief says “more than six” schools likely to be on the chopping block this year as she struggles with a budget that has rising health care costs, contains contracts up for renegotiation, and can’t depend on federal stimulus funds.

“If you think about next year, when we’ll have new contracts to settle, because we have 12 unions and we have to negotiate with each of them on a new contract, and we have increased costs for health insurance and we have some things that are fixed costs that we have no control over like utilities, I think we have to have probably more than six,” Superintendent Carol Johnson said in a recent sit-down with several community newspaper reporters. “But I don’t know what the magic number is.”

In fall 2008, the School Committee approved Johnson’s move to close six schools. The system serves 56,000 students, from pre-kindergarten through grade 12, in 135 schools across the city.
“It’s always hard to close schools,” Johnson said. “But I think that to some extent, the schools that we closed had a school right near it.”

Twelve schools in Boston have received an “underperforming” designation, including Dorchester’s Jeremiah E. Burke High, William Trotter Elementary, Paul Dever Elementary, John Holland Elementary, and Harbor Middle School.

The city is also expected to lose about $30 million in federal stimulus dollars that can’t be carried over into the next budget.
“If you think about our budget, this year, we started out with $28 million in the hole, just by doing exactly what we’re doing now,” she said, pointing to rising insurance costs and teacher pay.
But school closings alone will not be enough to close the gap and allow a reinvestment in school programs, she said.

Johnson said community meetings are expected to begin in June as her department mulls a number of proposals, which will have a range of “everything from school closings to transportation to how we can be more effective in other ways centrally.”

Additional community meetings are slated for September, with a final Boston School Committee vote on the proposals in October.
“I think as we look at these schools that are around the city, we are going to be looking at how they are performing; how many kids live in the neighborhood, what is the demand like,” Johnson said.
Empty seats within a school will be one of the driving factors. As of December 2009, the city had 5,660 empty seats in the city’s three zones and in its high schools.

The geographic distribution of the schools will also be an issue. “I don’t think we want to disproportionately impact any one neighborhood,” she added. “The geographic distribution is really important. You wouldn’t want close all the schools in a particular neighborhood.”

In-district charter schools, which the superintendent would have control over thanks to the education reform law the Legislature passed in January, are slated to start up in fall 2011. Separately, state education officials have launched an effort to recruit top teachers to apply for vacancies in the Bay State’s lowest performing schools.

A website will showcase the career opportunities for teachers in Boston, as well as Fall River, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Springfield and Worcester. More information is available at the website: wamazingteachers.org.

“Some may consider working in an underperforming school a stigma; but I know there are many excellent teachers who would see it as an opportunity,” state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said in a statement. “There are teachers in the Commonwealth and beyond who are willing to accept the challenge of turning around a previously low performing school. Given the support and flexibility to make changes, I am confident these educators can – and will – improve the life chances of the students in these schools.”