THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

School budget proposal would cut 250 positions

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / February 3, 2011

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Boston public schools would close a $63 million shortfall by cutting about 250 positions and restructuring class-size averages, and will also use an infusion of city and federal funds, according to a proposed budget presented to the School Committee last night.

“It’s not perfect yet,’’ Superintendent Carol R. Johnson told the committee. “But, I think this budget is trying to begin a really intense effort to really focus on students. Not programs. Not schools. Not fancy logos.’’

The district’s proposed $829 million budget for the next school year also calls for a new way of distributing funds, giving the most money to schools that teach the students who traditionally are the most expensive to educate.

Schools would be funded on a per-student basis using a weighted formula that gives additional money for teaching students who come from poverty, who are learning English, or who have physical or learning disabilities. This means the school system’s three highly coveted exam schools, Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, would receive the least money per student, according to district documents.

The new system is a more equitable way of funding education, school officials said.

“Every child with similar characteristics will have exactly the same resources no matter what school they attend, no matter what neighborhood they live in,’’ John McDonough, the school system’s chief financial officer, said before the meeting.

McDonough and Johnson said this is the first time since the economic crisis began that the district presented a balanced budget to the School Committee so soon. A series of public hearings is planned before the panel votes on the budget in March.

An additional $8.1 million infusion of cash from the city is one reason the district was able to balance next year’s budget, officials said. This money, like the $10.1 million from the federal education jobs fund bill, is a one-time revenue boost that will not help the district’s coffers next year.

For nearly a year, the School Department has struggled to close a $63 million budget gap that was propagated, in part, by rising health care costs, employee raises, and growing expenses for heating and utilities. Salaries account for more than 80 percent of the district’s operating budget.

Last year, the district stemmed what was a mounting financial crisis with $32 million in federal stimulus money; by cutting heating costs by turning down school thermostats to between 66 and 68 degrees; and not replacing decades-old school buses. These options were not available this year.

McDonough said schools already are about as cool as they can get. “You find a lot of people in schools wearing sweaters and coats,’’ he said during an interview.

Systemic changes were made in order to have “the financial plan to support the academic agenda at the district,’’ he said.

The first major step in shrinking the 2011-2012 budget shortfall came in December when the committee voted to close and merge about 18 schools. The plan affects nearly every neighborhood in the city and saves about $10.6 million.

McDonough said the school restructuring should reduce by about one-quarter the 5,600 empty classroom seats scattered across the city. This will allow the district to adjust class-size averages, which, he said, will save an additional $11 million.

“It was a very painful process,’’ he said before last night’s committee meeting. “Some of the decisions have been difficult, but at the end of the day, we are confident’’ that this will help better serve the district’s 56,000 students.

The classroom adjustments will also result in the elimination of about 250 positions through redesigning classes that serve students with disabilities; consolidating the number of teachers for students learning English and are based in the central office, and reducing central office personnel.

McDonough said the district hopes most of the staffing cutbacks will come from attrition, retirement, and unfilled positions. He was unable to say how many people would be directly affected by the cuts.

Only three committee members — John F. Barros, Michael D. O’Neill, and the Rev. Gregory G. Groover Sr. — were at last night’s meeting. While each supported the proposed budget, they had concerns, including that funding changes would create financial incentives for schools to unduly label African-American and Latino boys as having behavioral needs.

Sheri Kiami, vice chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, told the committee that some parents are anxious and asked the board to consider the impact on schools with high numbers of students with special needs but low enrollment overall.

“I don’t see how this evens the playing field for children with special needs,’’ Kiami said. “I encourage you to carefully analyze the data and look at these schools that are taking the hits.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.