Calling it a “difficult” and “educationally unsound” decision, the Wakefield School Committee voted last night to cut seven positions, including five teaching positions, from its FY2012 budget in order to bring a balanced budget to Monday night’s town meeting.
The cuts became necessary to balance the budget after it was determined $460,000 had to be cut from the overall town’s budget last week. The Board of Selectmen cut $170,000 last Monday, leaving the School Committee to cut $300,000 from its budget. To ensure unemployment payouts from layoffs were accounted for, the School Committee had to cut a total of $389,000 from its budget.
What Was Cut
Foreign language was cut from grades 5 and 6 with the elimination of two foreign language teachers at the Galvin Middle School. A Communications teacher was also cut at the Galvin Middle School. At the high school, two positions – an English teacher and a SPED guidance position – will not be refilled after those teachers retire, and an extracurricular coordinator stipend position and a wellness facilitator stipend position will be eliminated.
Two grade two teaching positions were spared from the chopping block by a higher estimation of anticipated funds from the state circuit breaker fund, although the decision on the anticipated refund rate split the committee down the middle.
School Committee Chairwoman Lisa Butler said she felt more comfortable with a 53% circuit breaker reimbursement rate.
“We’ve had to have mid-year cuts a couple of years ago,” she said.
Committee member Chris Callanan noted that Fiscal Year 2013 will also be challenging, so if a 53% rate is assumed and funding actually comes in higher, next year's budget may have more flexibility.
"There are contracts that have increases built in and we have to meet those," he said. "This could be our first step in getting that done."
School Committee Vice Chairman Thomas Markham disagreed.
"All intelligence across all of the people who are following this closely say that 60% is a conservative approach," Markham said. "It's what was in the governor's budget, and what's in House Ways and Means Committee budget."
Superintendent Joan Landers said that for the community at large, it may seem like the schools did not need these seven positions all along, but cutting these positions brings the schools below a level-service budget.
“These positions should be non-negotiable,” said Landers. “That’s why I referenced I didn’t feel this budget was educationally sound.”
Landers said she also feels for the quality educators she will have to let go.
“What was really striking to me is that over my years here, specifically as the superintendent, I see that we’re attracting really quality educators, so that was so disheartening to me,” she said, referencing the conversations she had with teachers about layoffs. “I walked to my car thinking, 'Our students aren’t going to get that opportunity.' I want you to know that it’s a very hard decision.”
School Committee member Anthony Guardia said that if the budget isn’t educationally sound, it may be something to bring up to the town at large.
“I think we have every right to have a conversation that really acts like we are one town, not a town side and a school side,” he said. “We could say, ‘These items are going to be too painful to the Wakefield School Department, and is there anything you can do to help us?’ If they come back and say we can’t make any cuts without devastating our own budgets that’s one thing, but otherwise, that’s just not right.”
Criticism from Teachers' Union
Florence Martin, president of the Wakefield Teachers Union, spoke during the beginning of the meeting to say the cuts to teaching positions will impact class size, and the portrayal of employees as “greedy” for failing to pass a new health insurance plan is particularly hurtful.
“No one is more disheartened by the position that we’re in than us,” she said.
Martin said that the proposed cuts were “disappointing on many fronts.”
“These cuts could be a loss for Wakefield for many years to come,” Martin said. “Some of these people are very skillful and dedicated, and it’s really hard to know that class sizes are going to be impacted, and that all of these things will affect student achievement,” she said.
Martin said an email was sent on April 12 asking for input from the Teachers' Union, but the proposals submitted were rejected.
“Does this mean that the School Committee feels more capable than us to make these decisions? Let the schools take a red pen to their budget – they would know what they could live without, without directly impacting our students…. We’re asking you as the professionals to work with us with the administrators before you make these decisions that could and will devastate some of our students.”
Later on in the night, Chairwoman Butler responded to Martin’s criticism, saying she “took offense” at the thought that the school committee “thinks they know more than the administrators.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “We have our own goals, and that’s to look over the whole School Department and not just what individual administrators want,” she said. “Nobody likes these cuts. We did listen to what the administrators said and we discussed it and we looked at other areas that we thought were more appropriate and fair,” she said.