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Brookline Braces For As Many As 300 Potential Teacher Layoffs, Setting Stage For Uncertain Fall

A young girl rides her scooter in front of the Heath School in Brookline. The Heath School is part of the Brookline Early Education Program, a program targeted by the proposed cuts. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A young girl rides her scooter in front of the Heath School in Brookline. The Heath School is part of the Brookline Early Education Program, a program targeted by the proposed cuts. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The town of Brookline is notifying just over 300 district educators that they may not have jobs to return to next fall.

In a letter to the community (pdf), members of the town's school committee said Friday that they had to hand out pink slips because of "contractual obligations [to] the Brookline Educators Union" and a $12.8 million hit to town finances driven by the pandemic and shutdown.

In an open meeting of the town’s school committee Friday morning, Ben Lummis, the district’s interim superintendent, warned against overreaction.

Those pink slips reflect the need to give advance written notice to unionized teachers who might not have a post to return to in the fall. But Lummis said "there is no universe where we don’t bring back the vast majority of those people."

But Graciela Mohamedi, a ninth-grade physics teacher at Brookline High, argued that the story is not so simple.

As the union's chair of organizing, Mohamedi knew Thursday that she would receive a pink slip today, saying, "I cried myself to sleep." She noted that district leaders had identified a $3.5 million budget deficit as of last November, months before the first American case of COVID-19 was diagnosed.

In a public presentation that month, school leaders attributed that shortfall to multiple factors, from rising personnel costs to lower-than-expected revenues, and proposed "reduction in [school] personnel" as a possible forthcoming cut. (A similar pattern — an existing deficit exacerbated by the pandemic's pressure on revenue — was seen in Randolph as it announced the state's first furloughs of school employees in April.)

Two years ago, Mohamedi became one of dozens of teachers of color recruited to the district under an ongoing diversity hiring initiative.

But under the current Brookline Educators Union contract, teachers without "professional status" — those who have worked in the district for less than three school years — are to be disproportionately affected by layoffs. That means, Mohamedi argued, that the district's growing diversity will likely now regress: "We’re all gone. We just got pinked!"

With that in mind, Mohamedi called it "shameful" for Lummis and the School Committee to say that they anticipate the vast majority of affected teachers to return in the fall: "They have their own mortgages, their own rent payments, their own bills ... It’s insane for [district leaders] to demand loyalty, when they haven’t shown the same loyalty."

In his morning remarks, Lummis said that the only program targeted comprehensively by the proposed cuts is the Brookline Early Education Program, or BEEP, which has served 252 children of pre-kindergarten age during the current school year.

But the district's librarians, art teachers, world language and physical education teachers — particularly, but not exclusively, those without professional status — are among those educators who will receive their notice by the end of the day Friday.

Mohamedi said she's already received job offers from other districts, and that "the vultures are circling": 300 educators from one of the state's most well-regarded school districts "are now newly on the market, ready to be poached by other districts who did not have the same type of budgetary mismanagement."

District leaders did not respond to requests for an interview.

The school committee will hold a public meeting on these cuts on June 4, followed by a budget presentation for the 2021 fiscal year to Brookline's Town Meeting on June 23. Now they must plan on reducing their budget by $6.3 million, with $2.9 million in reductions already identified in administration, services and capital reductions.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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