By DAN TOMASELLO
NORTH READING — The School Committee is in the process of trimming $407,564 from the preliminary fiscal year 2016 school budget and outlined a plan to balance the budget before 25 attendees at the annual school budget public hearing on Monday.
The two dozen or so persons on hand at the public hearing included local officials, parents, school administrators and a dozen teachers. The School Committee is currently in the middle of contract negotiations with the North Reading Education Association.
The proposed modified level services school budget unveiled by Superintendent of Schools Jon Bernard last month totals $27,886,226, representing a 4.2 percent increase over FY’15’s budget of $26,764,015.
During the School Committee’s budget workshop last week, school officials reduced the school budget gap from $760,228 to $407,564. Bernard said he believes the current budget addresses school needs, particularly large classes at North Reading High School, while also being fiscally responsible.
“I believe the budget strikes a healthy balance between advocating North Reading Public Schools’ continuous mission of providing a high quality education for all students while respecting the community’s ability to financially support the requests presented,” said Bernard.
In order to trim the school department’s recommended budget gap, Finance Director Michael Connelly said the school department has eliminated a new .70 full-time equivalent center office receptionist ($15,841); a 1.0 FTE custodian ($45,472); a new 1.0 FTE inclusion paraprofessional ($24,000) and a .20 FTE high school physical education teacher ($10,600).
Additionally, school officials will delay implementing a new curriculum leadership model, totaling $74,122. School officials will be reducing small capital and equipment line items by $20,000 and will reduce a town-school shared facilities position, totaling $12,000. The school department has identified $205,529 in “unidentified reductions” to help close the budget gap.
While the school department has reduced the budget gap to $407,564, school officials worked to preserve the plan to address large classes at NRHS as well as accommodate parent requests for full-day kindergarten by offering a seventh full-day kindergarten class. The school department has recommended adding a 1.0 FTE full-day kindergarten teacher, totaling $27,944, and a 1.0 FTE full-day kindergarten paraprofessional, totaling $9,571.
In order to address class sizes at the high school, school officials recommended restoring a .40 FTE physical education teacher ($21,178); add a .20 FTE health education teacher ($10,589); restore a .60 FTE business/computer teacher ($31,766); add a 1.0 FTE STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher ($52,944); add a 1.0 FTE guidance counselor ($52,944); add a .40 FTE math teacher ($21,178) and add a .40 FTE foreign language teacher ($21,178).
Connelly said 56 percent of NRHS classes have 24 or more students enrolled.
“The large classes are less than optimal for teaching and learning,” said Connelly.
Additionally, school officials want to hire 5.3 FTE positions for the school system’s NRPS 2016 initiative, totaling $279,848. The school department has recommended adding 2.0 FTE digital learning specialists for the elementary schools ($105,888); a 1.0 FTE library/media specialist for the middle school ($52,944); a 1.0 FTE special education teacher at the high school ($52,944); a .50 FTE reading teacher for the middle school ($26,472) and a district-wide .80 FTE speech and language teacher ($41,600).
While school officials want to include the recommended new positions in the FY’16 budget, a “contingency plan” has been developed in order to further reduce the budget by $364,119. The plan includes removing the two digital learning specialists, the library/media specialist, the .20 FTE physical education teacher, the .20 FTE health teacher, the .40 FTE foreign language teacher and the .50 FTE reading teacher.
Additionally, the full-day kindergarten teacher and paraprofessional would be removed from the budget. The school and district expense budgets would be reduced by $60,000 and a 1.0 FTE elementary teacher would be eliminated.
“All of the options are on the table,” said Connelly.
Public weighs in
School Committee member Mel Webster said he believes it’s crucial for school officials to reduce NRHS class sizes in FY’16.
“This has been an issue for the past three years,” said Webster. “We actually need more staff to address the enrollment at the high school, but I think what we are proposing makes a big dent in that. I think it’s critical that we don’t touch any of the high school staff we are adding.”
Marci Bailey, 21 Duane Drive, said the new teaching positions proposed for NRHS are “critically necessary.” She believes the school department should be adding a humanities teacher, which is not included in the FY’16 budget, to reduce class sizes. She also expressed concerns about the size of foreign language classes and said she hopes school officials will not cut the foreign language teacher from the budget.
“My daughter has 30 students in her foreign language class,” said Bailey. “Her desk is actually overlapping her teacher’s desk because there are so many students.”
Bailey also expressed concerns about eliminating the two digital learning specialists because she said they are needed to move the school system forward.
“I know you are between a rock and a hard place and I know we can’t print money, but technology is not a luxury,” said Bailey.
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrick Daly said the school system’s goal is to have one digital learning specialist at each school, which is currently not the case.
“These positions are essential,” said Daly. “But at this time, these positions are part of the second tier of cuts.”
In response to a question about special education from a woman in the audience, School Committee Chairman Jerry Venezia the school department’s out of district special education costs have decreased heading into FY’16 because the school department developed customized programming to keep students in the district and bring back students placed outside of the district.
Elizabeth Rymill, 1 Williams Road, asked school officials if they are confident they can close the budget gap.
“We have a $27 million dollar budget and we are confident we can go through that budget and find the $205,000 to make cuts that are not going to cause a great deal of angst the next fiscal year,” said Venezia. “We feel a lot better about it today than three weeks ago.”
Webster said the School Committee, Bernard and Connelly went through each budget line item during the workshop and cut items that “won’t damage the education system.”
Finance Committee Chairwoman Abigail Hurlbut inquired what net total of FTE’s are included in the school budget. Connelly said the recommended budget proposal included a net increase of 11.4 FTE’s, but said the proposed reductions would lead to a net increase of 7.1 FTE’s.
Scott Buckley, 5 Alden Street, noted parent organizations and booster groups often supplement the school department’s budget by donating items needed such as devices and even cleaning supplies. He said the school board should keep that in mind when trying to balance the budget by making cuts.
“When we are cutting things that seem like a luxury, there are people picking up the gaps,” said Buckley.
Buckley also said he thinks it will be a shame if the school department will not be able to accommodate parent requests for full-day kindergarten.
Venezia said the school department is making a concentrated effort to accommodate parent requests for full-day kindergarten next year. He also said he understands parent organizations and booster groups repeatedly step up to support the schools and their needs.
Webster said he recently asked Connelly to compile a list of the items parent organizations have donated to the schools. He said the School Committee has accepted over $50,000 in donations from parent groups recently.
“The state needs to be aware we are not only charging more than a million dollars in fees and tuitions this year, but we are probably collecting between $100,000-$300,000 from PTOs,” said Webster. “And that doesn’t count the money teachers are spending on their own. All of it is wrong. It’s great the PTOs are raising money for the schools, but it should be for enrichment. It shouldn’t be for buying technology for the schools. That should be part of what society provides the school system, but the state doesn’t fund us to allow us to do that.”
Selectman Mike Prisco concurred with Webster’s sentiment. He noted the financial impact of unfunded mandates on the school department is $9.4 million.
“This is one of the challenges we are face,” said Prisco. “We have talked to (state Rep.) Brad Jones and Senator (Bruce) Tarr about this, and it really does need to be addressed. The taxpayers have stepped up and they are doing the right thing, but we need to start pushing back against the state a little bit more.”
Brooks Road resident Kathleen Bythrow, a Batchelder School second grade teacher, said the town might need to “step up” to make up the cost of unfunded mandates. She said the town should develop dual tax rates.
Board of Selectman Chairman Bob Mauceri said, “Splitting the tax rate will not raise more revenue, it will shift the burden” from residents to businesses. He said the town is looking to expand its commercial tax base, but said, “It’s not going to happen over night.”
Bythrow also said teachers “work 60 hours a week during the school year,” and said the school board and NREA should come together on a pact that supports the town’s teachers.
Venezia said the School Committee’s objective is to negotiate a fair contract with the NREA that benefits both sides.