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Staff cuts likely as Boston schools attempt to bridge $33.2m gap

Email|Print| Text size + By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / February 7, 2008

Superintendent Carol Johnson faces a $33.2 million shortfall in next school year's budget as she tries to implement ambitious changes to raise graduation rates and keep families in the Boston school system.

Johnson proposed a preliminary budget last night of $815.5 million for the 2008-09 school year, a 4.2 percent increase from this year's $782.8 million general fund budget.

Johnson acknowledged that her recommended budget is far from balanced. Over the next two months, she will identify millions of dollars in cuts that are likely to include the loss or reshuffling of administrative and central office staff positions.

"This is a very sobering report," Johnson told the School Committee last night. "It is not possible to balance this budget without making significant reductions in the current staffing that we have. We will work aggressively to make sure these reductions occur as far away from the classroom as possible."

The system is coping with reduced state and federal funding because of steadily declining enrollment, coupled with spending increases on new programs. The system has also faced escalating costs for utilities, employee benefits, and transportation.

In Johnson's proposed budget, she plans to invest $2.7 million in such initiatives as adding college-level courses and beginning "credit recovery" programs to reduce the number of high school dropouts. She would expand arts and music offerings and add a newcomers academy for immigrant students who are not fluent in English.

And she vowed to continue to expand preschool classrooms and establish more K-8 schools, initiatives the school system launched in recent years to entice parents to choose city schools.

The challenge of finding money to pay for Johnson's plans, in addition to the programs begun before she took over the 57,000-student system in August, is stirring talk of staff cuts.

"The fact is they did establish a number of new programs that resulted in increased staff," said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded watchdog agency. "There's going to have to be a hard look at these programs to evaluate how effective they are. It's going to be difficult to go through and make cuts."

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said he and other union officials met with Johnson for two hours yesterday and discussed the budget.

"It's very clear that there will be some serious cutback in personnel," Stutman said. "It's unsettling. You cannot absorb that kind of deficit without significant layoffs in both school and central office personnel and cutting programs that we deem necessary."

Johnson is also proposing to spend a half-million dollars to form new departments, including an Institutional Advancement Office to raise funds for the school system and an Accountability Office to ensure that failing schools are improving.

The majority of the budget increase is for personnel costs, including raises previously agreed to with the teachers' union and other bargaining groups.

In addition to the anticipated gap in the general fund budget, Johnson said the school system will see a $11.1 million reduction in Title 1 grants, federal money for low-income schools. That means that elementary and middle schools will receive a 20 percent reduction per pupil, from $591 per student to $472 per student, a cut that could affect academic coaching services.

"The bottom line is a new superintendent deserves the resources to get her ideas off the ground," said John Mudd, senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children. "The city has to make sure she has the resources to begin her reform agenda."

The School Committee plans a series of public forums about the budget and is scheduled to vote on the final budget March 26. It will then send the budget to City Hall for approval.

'It is not possible to balance this budget without making significant reductions in the current staffing that we have.'

SUPERINTENDENT CAROL JOHNSON

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