Published in the April 21, 2016 edition
By DAN TOMASELLO
NORTH READING — The High School’s proposed student parking fee is inching closer to being placed on the chopping block, even though it will add $45,000 to next year’s budget gap of more than $350,000.
Superintendent of Schools Jon Bernard and Finance Director Michael Connelly have proposed a $28.6 million school spending for fiscal year 2017, representing a 4.3 percent increase ($1.2 million) over the current budget The school department is currently facing a budget gap of $350,440.
In order to close the school budget gap, school officials proposed increasing busing, athletic and extra curricular fees as well as instituting a $200 student parking fee for high school students for the first time. Several residents who spoke at the School Committee’s public hearing on the FY’17 school budget recently expressed their opposition to the parking fee, including School Committee Vice Chairman Mel Webster.
Webster said last week he will be making a motion to eliminate the parking fee at the school board’s next meeting on Monday, May 2. He said would have made the motion last week, but did not because School Committee member Jerry Venezia was not present. If the parking fee is nixed, the school budget gap will increase to $395,440.
“I know it sounds crazy I want to make a motion to eliminate $45,000 in revenue,” said Webster. “I know a lot of schools do it, but to me it’s almost an insult. The fees are already an insult but if you look at the other fees, you get to ride a bus, play a sport or go to kindergarten. But with this, you get to park your car in a parking lot we paid $123 million dollars for.”
School Committee member Cliff Bowers agreed with Webster’s sentiment.
“It’s like somebody going down to Park Street, stopping a couple of cars and holding people up,” said Bowers. “It puts all of that $45,000 burden on seniors at the high school for something that already exists and everybody in town has already paid for. I think its something we need to move out of the revenue column.”
School Committee member Julie Koepke noted the parents of secondary school students “carry a lot of the burden” for supplementing the school budget by paying fees.
School Committee Chairwoman Janene Imbriano echoed her fellow committee members’ sentiments and said it would be a good idea to hold off on nixing the parking fee until the Financial Planning Team and Finance Committee discuss the school budget and updated revenue projections.
Bernard said he respects the school board’s opposition to the parking fee but acknowledged it was put on the table to “close the (budget) gap.”
MS psychologist is a top priority
The proposed school budget includes 6.0 new full-time equivalent (FTE) positions, totaling $334,526.
The FY’17 school budget proposal includes 3.0 FTE positions for special education, totaling $148,934. School officials have requested a 1.0 FTE special education teacher for the middle school’s pathways program, totaling $61,864. School officials have also requested a 1.0 FTE special education teacher for the high school’s connections program, totaling $61,864. The high school is requesting a 1.0 inclusion paraprofessional for the connections program, totaling $25,206.
The School Committee identified three positions for the NRPS 2021 strategic plan as being a high priority for the school system. The positions are a 1.0 middle school psychologist ($61,864), a 1.0 special education teacher ($61,864) and a 1.0 academic teacher for North Reading High School ($61,864).
Webster said he discussed the need for a middle school psychologist with Bernard recently. He said the psychologist is needed to address students’ social-emotional issues.
“Social–emotional issues have always been there, but in a community like North Reading, I don’t think people realize it as much,” said Webster. “It’s not until you start seeing the examples and the cases you realize our kids have problems just like kids in an urban district or a rural district. I know people who go back to the old days say ‘why do we need that stuff for.’ When we applied to go to college, it wasn’t like what our kids face today. There is a tremendous amount of pressure and that pressure requires additional assistance,” Webster said.
Koepke said its stunning the middle school’s two guidance counselors are able to “do the work they do” considering their current caseloads. The two counselors are each working with 300 students.
“The social–emotional well being of our middle schoolers is the top priority for me,” said Koepke.
Bernard said the administrative council agrees, “the middle school psychologist is the top priority” of the three NRPS 2021 positions.
“We recognize more and more the needs of students has been changing,” said Bernard. “It’s driven by student needs and the justification is becoming more and more apparent.”
In response to a question from Imbriano, Connelly said the middle school psychologist has been requested the past couple of years. Bernard noted the high school currently has four guidance counselors, a psychologist and an adjustment counselor.
Bernard also said the four special education positions are needed in order to keep special education students in the school system.
“I don’t want to say it’s solely an economic decision because it isn’t,” said Bernard. “But there is an economic gain by having staff in-house to service the needs of students without having outside placements.”
Connelly noted the FY’17 school budget was presented to the Finance Committee on April 13. He also said the school budget was scheduled to be discussed by the Finance Planning Team meeting on April 15.