What is the McKinsey report and how does it fit into school closures?

The report has been referenced by the Mayor and in school committee meetings.

One of the areas where the McKinsey report suggested saving money was in transportation.
One of the areas where the McKinsey report suggested saving money was transportation. –The Boston Globe/Pat Greenhouse

It was bound to come up at last week’s school committee meeting. The words “McKinsey report” were first uttered by a parent who expressed her concerns during the public comment period. It was then brought up by committee member Dr. Hardin Coleman during a discussion of the district’s 10-year facilities master plan.

School officials quickly swatted the report down, saying the system was instead moving forward with its “Build BPS” 10-year plan.

Even before it was released two weeks ago, the McKinsey report had been a hot topic of conversation in the education world. Commissioned by the city, the reported was touted in a statement from the district as a way to help Boston Public Schools “explore for more efficient operational approaches and suggests reallocating potential cost savings to better serve all students in the system.” When a summary version was released in December, Mayor Marty Walsh said in a statement it could “serve as a resource for [Superintendent Tommy Chang] as he plans for the future of our school system.”

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In September, however, the district launched the “Build BPS” plan, which does not follow the McKinsey recommendations. Still, the report, and the lack of openness around its contents, had several parents concerned about what it would mean for their kids.

So what then, was the McKinsey report? Here’s a rundown of what the report entails, why it’s been so controversial, and how it fits into the discussion of school closures.

What is the McKinsey report?

It’s a $660,000 city-ordered audit of Boston Public Schools by the consultant group McKinsey & Company. The Mayor’s office requested an eight-week review (in collaboration with the district) in 2014 to explore “potential options to improve student achievement, lower district costs and drive operational efficiency,” according to the report.

When was it released?

The report was completed in spring 2015, but a summary version wasn’t released until December 2015. Members of the parent group Quality Education for Every Student, also known as “QUEST,” filed a Freedom of Information Act request in order to gain access to the full report, which the Mayor’s office did not release. Because of their request, the report was released in its entirety on April 27.

Have we heard about this before?

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Maybe. In November, QUEST said Mayor Marty Walsh told them privately he wants to close 36 public schools. The mayor’s office denied the accusation, but a similar figure has popped up again thanks to the report.

So what exactly did the report say?

The draft of the audit, which is dated March 5, 2015 and spans 220 pages, includes a number of cost-saving measures. One of the most contentious is the suggestion that the district consolidate 30 to 50 of its 125 schools. Doing so, the report said, would save the district an initial $120 million to $200 million, and between $50 million and $85 million each year. It would also allow the district to build one “state-of-the-art” high school, and nine “state-of-the-art” lower schools.

What else was in the report?

It estimated that the district has a capacity of about 93,000 seats, but that only about 54,000 are filled. (The district said it educates more than 56,000 students). But, by the report’s own admission, that 93,000 figure was calculated “without student-teacher ratio limits.” In the methodology section of the report, the authors said “Rooms were counted as ‘A’ or ‘B’ rooms by the facilities team. ‘A’ rooms could hold 21-30 students depending on the school, and ‘B’ rooms could hold 12 students.” Using those figures, the report concluded that each school had an average of 715 seats, which was multiplied by 130 to get the final determination of 92,950 seats.

The report goes on to suggest that if the district operated with the student-teacher ratio of comparable school districts—meaning more students per teacher—”they would carry ~1,300 fewer teachers, at a savings of $90-110 million.”

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What about spending per student?

The report says Boston spends “above average” on each student, with a rate of $17,859 per student in 2012-13. But then, in a side item on a slide, says “when cost of living adjustments are made to the national peer set, Boston’s per pupil spending declines to $12,472 below the peer average of $13,109.”

It also notes that notes that the district has a higher percentage—19.5 percent—of special education students than other districts in the state and across the country. The district could save $5 million for every drop in a percentage point of special education students, according to the report.

The report also recommended increasing the minimum distance between a students homes and their bus stops from the current 0.16 mile to 0.25 mile. This could save $6 to $19 million each year.

What did parents have to say about this?

QUEST, the organization that filed the public records request, said in a statement, “city and school officials should halt discussion of school closures, consolidations, or ‘right-sizing’ until there is credible, publicly available, and locally-valid data regarding capacity. QUEST [calls] on City Hall and BPS to commit to a planning process for the future of Boston Public Schools that is fully transparent, and fully vetted by the public.”

What did the Mayor have to say?

“While I appreciate the input of the McKinsey report, it is only a starting point for analysis, and I have made it clear that I am not comfortable with any proposal that would close schools until we complete our comprehensive facilities master plan,” Walsh said in a statement.

What did the district have to say?

Boston Public Schools has remained neutral on the report. Last week, Chang sent a letter to administrators with no mention of the McKinsey report, but instead focused on the facilities plan.

“The purpose of this process is to create a strategic framework for facilities investment,” Chang wrote. “The process began last summer and is scheduled to conclude in January 2017. The project will address demographics, educational planning, facility assessment, and financing.”

What does this mean for the city?

At last week’s school committee meeting, just as in the letter, the 10-year facilities plan—not the report—was the focus. Build BPS was launched by the Mayor in September 2015. The mayor’s education cabinet, the district and consultant Symmes, Maini & McKee Associates are evaluating each building in the district through June, including grade configurations and the overall condition of the building, as well as the students’ demographics. There will be an update on June 4, as well as a public event focused on the project in August.

In response to Coleman’s initial question, Build BPS project manager Margaret Wood said this report will create exact information to allow the school system to know the capacity of its buildings and how they can evolve over time.

“The McKinsey report, I believe, is rather short on methodology,” she said. “But you will have all that data.”

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