Another Reason Charters are in Trouble

Last time I wrote about Boston’s charter schools being in trouble, I theorized that the people who had bad experiences as charter school students twenty-five years ago were probably not going to send their kids to these schools.

That’s part of the picture. But with City on a Hill now set to close at the end of the school year and the Boston Globe blaming a drop in the school-age population (which of course affects all schools equally and is therefore a nonsensical explanation for one school’s problems), I think it’s an appropriate time to bring up another problem that charter schools, and especially City on a Hill, have.

Because each charter school functions as its own district in the eyes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, these schools are absurdly top-heavy. While public school districts have a central office staff to do a lot of administrative tasks, every charter school needs its own person to do the administrative work of running a school. Many of them also have both a superintendent and a principal, though the superintendent is usually called “Executive Director” or some such.

The governance structure of Massachusetts charter schools doesn’t help. Charter school boards are self-appointing and typically don’t have any parent or student representation. So when administrators want to hire too many administrators, the board usually signs off on this.

This was what happened when I worked at City on a Hill. In the 2001-2002 school year, a new President decided the school needed to go from three administrators to NINE. The board didn’t make a peep.(read all about it in the book I wrote!)

Which leads me to the 2021 school year. I looked up the salaries at City on a Hill and found some pretty damning information. The data is done by calendar year rather than school year, so some positions are probably listed twice because lots of people left this school every year, but we can get a picture. 79 people worked at City on a Hill in 2021. 22 of them were not in direct student-facing roles. They had a principal and vice principal, as you might expect, but also the following: Dean of Citizenship, Director of Specialized Services, Director of School Culture and Climate, Night Custodian, Data Analyst and Manager, Human Capital Coordinator, Director of Teacher Development and Compliance, Front Office Assistant, Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff, Facilities Associate, Director of School Operations, Staff Accountant, Chief Schools Officer, and Senior Advisor. Some of these positions are clearly essential. Many others look a lot like bullshit to me.

The other piece of data that’s relevant here is that City on a Hill was serving roughly 200 students during this time. You can see why this is not sustainable. Especially when “Senior Advisor” Kevin Taylor was making $280,559. (As a point of comparison, Boston Superintendent of Schools Mary Skipper, who oversees a system that serves over 50,000 students, makes $300,000 per year.)

Chief Schools Officer Sonia Pratt made $161,143 in 2021. The Staff Accountant made $89k. Meanwhile, the highest-paid COAH teacher that year made $75k. Most of the teachers were making salaries in the 40k-60k range. Please remember this when people start pointing out that City on a Hill was the only Massachusetts charter school to have a unionized staff. This is a school that was paying huge (by education standards, obviously) salaries to a passel of administrative jobs of questionable usefulness instead of spending money on serving students. Of course they had to shut down.

Something to watch: the City on a Hill Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the schools, has net assets of about 4 million dollars, which I assume is mostly the real estate, which the foundation, not the school, owns. The foundation will need to dissolve since its mission is to support a school that no longer exists. I wonder what’s going to happen to the money?

#education #Boston #CharterSchools