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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Boston Schools Audit: Empty Seats, Special Ed Costs And Other ‘Opportunities’

From WBUR 90.9 FM's Blog
"Learning Lab"

By: Louise Kennedy
December 18, 2015

An audit commissioned by Mayor Marty Walsh says Boston Public Schools could save millions of dollars by consolidating schools, revising special education services to put more children into mainstream classrooms, streamlining administrative staff and changing bus routes.

Superintendent Tommy Chang, seen here with students in May,
said he supports some of the audit’s suggestions but thinks they
need to be tailored to the needs of each school. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“This isn’t a map for us on how to turn the system around,” Walsh told The Boston Globe Thursday. “This is an idea of what some of the suggestions might be from an outside, third-party, independent source.”

The city paid the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. $660,000 to conduct the audit, in hopes of exploring “more efficient operational approaches and … reallocating potential cost savings to better serve all students in the system,” according to a BPS statement.

The report is dated April, 2015 but was publicly released Friday.

“The audit was being updated throughout the year as additional information was becoming available,” Bonnie McGilpin, the mayor’s press secretary, said Friday.

The report outlines “opportunities” in four key areas and estimates potential savings for each. Stating that BPS currently has 93,000 total seats available but only about 54,000 of them filled, McKinsey estimates that the system could save between $1.7 million and $2.2 million a year by consolidating schools. It also notes possible income of $4 million per school if the buildings were sold.

Walsh also told the Globe he has not discussed closing schools, consolidating them or leasing school buildings to charter schools, which some critics have said they feared. And he noted that the facilities master plan, which the city plans to complete next year, will help planners estimate future needs. The McKinsey report alludes to projections that “no additional space will be needed” in the city’s schools.

Heshan Beerents-Weeramuni, co-chair of the Citywide Parent Council, said he could not comment in detail without seeing the report, but he questioned the assumption that demand for seats would not grow.

“I haven’t been privy to the actual report and the actual methodology,” he said. But he argued that Boston’s schools are on an “upward and encouraging journey … that will only be reflected in more and more demand for Boston Public Schools.”

In addition to possible consolidation, the report suggests that Boston could save as much as $50 million a year in the long run if it were to “revisit and potentially accelerate [special education] reforms.” The system is already moving toward greater inclusion of special-ed students in mainstream classrooms, the auditors noted, and may be able to move more quickly in that direction.

BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang told the Globe, however, that inclusion plans need to be adapted to each school’s specific circumstances.

“It should look very differently for every single school,” he said.

Mary Lewis Pierce, an attorney who advocates for special education and blogs frequently about Boston Public Schools, said she had “some really big concerns” about the special education findings.

“I think what struck me is, this report is all about efficiency,” Pierce said. “Efficiency isn’t the only principle you should use in education.”

The report says Boston’s proportion of special-ed students — 19.5 percent — is significantly higher than the state average, which in 2014-2015 was 17.1 percent. Noting large differences among schools, it also questions whether some schools are classifying too many or too few students as requiring special services.

The report authors “decided, based on I don’t know what, that some of these kids are getting services they don’t need. That’s ridiculous,” Pierce said. “First of all, kids get services based on assessments. You really have to fight to get any services at all.”

In addition, she said, Boston may have higher-than-average need than other parts of the state for many reasons, and “other cities may be underserving their children. … I feel like they make a lot of faulty presumptions.”

Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, also expressed concerns about the auditors’ priorities.

“I have not read the report yet,” Guisbond said, “but McKinsey is known for going into companies to see how they can squeeze out additional profit, a model that does not fit with the needs of public school children.”

Other potential savings identified in the report would come from reorganizing the central office staff and lowering the ratio of non-teaching staff to students, which McKinsey says is higher than in similar districts. Such changes could bring an “ongoing reduction” of $25 million to $30 million, the report concludes.

Finally, it notes “opportunities to improve operations” for an annual savings of $10 million to $25 million by revising school bus routes, choosing one contractor for all maintenance systemwide and reducing spending on meals, possibly by preparing all meals in a central kitchen rather than using an outside contractor.

A memo that accompanied the report says the city would need to make decisions “soon” on some options. “While FY16 budget has been approved,” it states in a footnote, “some FY16 opportunities could still be pursued.”

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