The School Committee unanimously voted, 5-0, Monday night to accept the $32.06 million budget proposed by school administrators for fiscal 2012, which starts July 1. The budget will be presented before the Board of Selectmen Tuesday night at its regular meeting at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.
The budget, while still a 2 percent increase from this year, eliminates 21 jobs, raises user fees and institutes cutbacks in other areas to present a balanced budget plan in the new school year. The budget is $650,000 larger, but the staff reductions, including teaching jobs at the elementary level, middle school and high school, would amount to $773,000 in savings.
Superintendent of Schools Lisa Dana assured the committee and parents watching that while the cuts are significant, she is confident the town's quality of education will not suffer because of it. Committee members agreed with that assessment.
“We do consider the human toll. We don’t take this lightly. Our job sometimes is to make difficult decisions that people don’t want to hear,” Chairman Arthur Skarmeas said.
Colleague Eric Crane said the spending plan is the most reasonable budget the town can afford while maintaining a quality education.
“Hopefully this is the worst year, hopefully things are going to start turning around…but reality is reality,” said Skarmeas. He and his colleagues all bemoaned the state of the budget, dismal for a third straight year, but felt there was little they could do with state and local resources seemingly tapped out.
“We can’t just go to Town Meeting this year and say, ‘No, we need more,’” Jean McCartin said, noting federal and state aid is being cut on all fronts, along with other town resources being used up.
McCartin also pointed out that with the town carrying the financial load for the new high school project within the budget, rather than as long-term debt exclusion, it has eaten up any leeway the town may have had in absorbing financial hurdles, such as continual cuts in state and federal aid, skyrocketing health insurance costs and the like. Each year, the town is setting aside a portion of its free cash account to finance the high school renovations.
While committee members acknowledged the dismal financial picture, they also felt there’s nothing left to cut. McCartin called it a “barebones budget,” which she couldn’t foresee supporting during the next budget season.
“I don’t know where we go from here,” Connie Pawlak said. “We can’t keep doing this [cutting jobs, services, programs and giving wage freezes].”
A handful of parents spoke Monday night, calling on the committee to explore other alternatives to cutting jobs.
Keri Smith Holian, who is also a Town Meeting member, urged the committee to reject the proposed budget and questioned whether the schools could really offer a quality education with so many job cuts.
“It is in the best interest of all residents to find another way to pay for this,” she said. “Voting ‘no’ will send a message that [the town] shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of kids.”
Dana expects the staff reductions will ultimately lead to 8-10 layoffs, once course scheduling is complete (likely at the end of this week) and retirements and other leaves of absence are accounted for, but she said it’s still too early to tell.
Nihan planning to stay on as consultant
One of the jobs to be cut is the director of K-12 health and physical education, which will be combined with the duties of the athletics director. The savings to the district is $67,584
Committee members had several concerns over that decision, but they were relieved to learn Monday night that retiring health director Gary Nihan will stay onboard with the DanversCARES project in particular, as a program manager/consultant post-retirement. Dana said the position would be covered under the two grants the district has that fund the initiative.
She said they are working out exact terms and language with Nihan now. Part of his continuing duties would be to help research grants for the program and other health-based initiatives.
“Hearing that Gary’s going to be around makes me feel a little better about this,” said Skarmeas.
Music program remains, teachers will be shared
As for elementary music programs, there is a reduction of .73 teachers, but that won’t mean students will lose out on the music portion of their education, Dana and Assistant Superintendent Susan Ambrozavitch assured the committee and parents. They emphasized that music will instead just be delivered in a different manner.
Teachers will be shared between schools, as art teachers are now, and there will be no music-specific planning time for teachers, rather they will have to collaborate more during general planning sessions with classroom teachers and other specialists.
Fees on the rise
Fees are going up, but the committee says they are still reasonable compared to most area districts. High school sports fees will increase up to $40 (some sports will cost $240); fine arts fees will increase by $6, elementary music $19 and middle school athletics from $77 to $95. Bus fees will rise $30 to $160 per student.
Supplies and other items will be trimmed back as well to meet the spending plan.
Opposition to the plan
The only proposed change to the plan came from Bill Bates, who continued to argue for freezing equity raises for principals and other administrators. He said the school leaders certainly deserved those raises, but he felt the $37,000 could be used to shore up other areas of the budget in greater need. No one else supported Bates in the motion, however.
The district has worked over the past several years to incrementally bring administrative salaries above maximum salaries for the district’s most senior teachers. For 2012, principals and others would receive about a $423 raise.
Pawlak lodged the lone “no” vote to accepting the transition plan for the high school administrative team, arguing the district should look to hire a new principal in 2012, rather than Ambrozavitch continuing to split duties for another year. The transition plan also affirms stipends for Ambrozavitch and other administrators at the high school, which are included in the new budget.
Admins: tuition for kindergarten not worth it
Dana also addressed a suggestion from special needs advocate Alan Vervaeke about charging tuition for the district’s all-day kindergarten program, estimating it could raise $250,000.
Dana, however, said charging tuition would forfeit the grant the schools receive and possibly jeopardize the progress on student development and readiness achieved over the past few years with the district-wide program. Currently, all students are enrolled in kindergarten and the program is self-supporting (except for the health insurance costs the town pays), but that likely wouldn’t be the case in a tuition-based program, as a certain number of families opt out.
Administrators calculated it would ultimately only amount to $57,000 for the district. For 2011, the district also received $184,303 in Chapter 70 aid for the 282 students enrolled in the program.
“I see it as putting a tax on parents,” Pawlak said.
Filling the gap
As for balancing this year’s budget, the School Committee also voted to use the remaining $150,137 in the education stabilization fund to close the gap. Finance Director Richard Warren informed the committee in February that spending was frozen on all non-salary accounts, as the district was facing a $515,000 deficit. In addition to the reserve funds and the spending freeze, the district will use a $150,000 federal jobs grant received last summer to plug the hole.