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The Danger of Overdoing Central Office Cuts

The Charlotte Observer recently called out Charlotte-Mecklenburg School (CMS) last minute teacher recruiting efforts, saying they “are racing to fill as many as 500 teaching vacancies” (CMS races to hire more teachers). A casual reader might mistakenly think CMS has poor planning; especially given North Carolina’s unemployment rate just hit 10.1% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In reality, the positions only became available in July. The true issue that CMS faces is that after three consecutive years of cuts that have disproportionately focused on central office positions - cuts designed to “protect the classroom” - the reduced central HR team is greatly challenged to execute such an ambitious endeavor in such a short time.

Consider CMS’s choices leading to their current situation as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. When the revenue decline began three years ago, they could either let go of teachers or of central office staff.  Given that choice, many districts, not just CMS, have decided to spare as many teachers as possible. Unfortunately, the next page in their adventure asked them again to cut budget, and then again. As recently as this past spring they were asked to tighten the belt on already slim resources. That’s when the unexpected twist appeared, as it often does in these adventure stories. CMS found out from the state in July that the district would have as many as 500 additional teaching positions to fill. That, however, is not the twist. The twist is that CMS’s ability to act on the opportunity to hire back the 500 positions is severely compromised from years of reductions to the HR team Budget cuts completed in a manner that was designed to “protect the classroom” have now left several of the classrooms empty instead.

Unlike a “Choose Your Own Adventure”, CMS cannot flip back several pages and hire additional HR people for the summer. That would have been ideal for the new HR chief Dan Habrat, who projects that 350 teachers might not be in classrooms for the start of class. Granted, if the alternative is rushing the application process and hiring teachers without properly vetting them first, then CMS has made the best choice for their situation.

Hopefully CMS’s experience can serve as a cautionary tale for other districts across the country as they prepare for yet another year of reductions in the coming budget cycle. During these tough times, repeatedly slimming central functions in the interests of saving teacher jobs may feel less harmful to student outcomes in the short term, but every choice has a consequence. When do central office cuts impact the classroom and given the multiple years of cuts are many districts at that point now? Instead of just cutting back functions that are already struggling to perform; districts should use the current budgetary constraints to take on the more difficult, least strategic uses of resources that would be politically infeasible to even mention in the absence of crisis.

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