SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – The Shrewsbury budget season kicked off last night not with a roar, but with a whimper, as very few showed up to address the first School Committee budget hearing. Yes, according to some reporters, there may have been a hundred people there (though that may be a high estimate), but the vast majority of them were not “concerned parents and voters,” who may have numbered 25 or 30, hardly representative of the 6000 students in Shrewsbury. The rest were teachers and other school officials who lined up, as they do each year, to talk about how they can’t possibly do their jobs with class sizes nearing 30 at the elementary school level.
One after another, teachers stepped up to speak about the effect these large class sizes are having on their ability to provide quality instruction, especially in a homogenous classroom setting where students have a broad range of competencies in particular subjects, and need different levels of explanation. Oak Middle School teacher Derek Pizzuto, one of my personal favorites, spoke of a potential return to the days of education the way it was done in the past, student lined up in rows presented with worksheets, as opposed to the modern day view of a Socratic and interactive learning model. Fourth grade teachers from Floral Street School spoke passionately about just not having the time for the one to one and small group work that’s so invaluable, and others spoke of the void left in the middle, as those struggling students receive a majority of the attention, and the high achieving students work more independently. Former SHS principal and current Needham Superintendent Dan Gutekanst spoke eloquently about how the current Shrewsbury school system looks vastly different than that just a few years ago, citing specifically the issue of “fees” which are routinely levied upon Shrewsbury parents to the tune last year of almost $1 million dollars. He spoke of the sad concept that a student has to pay a fee, just to write for the school paper, or even participate in a club. I echoed these sentiments and spoke of the incident last year where two dozen of the best and brightest Shrewsbury High School students had joined the Biology club, and were happily collecting samples from around the school and looking at them under microscopes after school until being told that to “be a club” they had to pay a stipend to the school of $2500 ($100 per person), at which point they all said forget it, and the Biology club was no more. This isn’t what we need to be seeing from a district that’s trying to be competitive in the 21′st century. We need our best and brightest student to want to participate in extra curricular activities, especially those of an academic nature, and discouraging that independent exploration by charging them for the privilege makes no sense. Of course, such is the case in all fields, whereupon fees become an addiction for a district. We all think, for example, that a police department would love it if nobody exceeded the speed limit in their town, but realistically they would go broke if that happened because they, like school districts, depend on those fees for their very existence. In the end, as these discussions always are, it basically came down to class sizes and money.
Of course the class size issue is nothing new in Shrewsbury, as sizes have been consistently increasing for years as the budget has forced one cut after another in personnel. Things really hit the fan this year though, after the sudden elimination of over 30 positions district wide necessitated by a loss of federal funding, combined with a contractual salary increase which was due in the third year of that current teachers contract. That salary increase alone pulled over $1 Million Dollars out of the budget last year, the equivalent of perhaps 20 teaching and paraprofessional positions, and while I think Shrewsbury teachers are just the best professionals out there, respect them dearly, and think they deserve every penny and more for the great work they do, I’m reminded that few were willing to call out for a deferral in that salary increase last year, which would have saved all of those jobs and programming, and kept class sizes more manageable. In the end, Shrewsbury, like other districts, has a school budget that is made up almost entirely of personnel salary. As costs continue to rise, and revenue falls, there is absolutely no choice but to keep cutting and cutting staff, forcing each to do more with less, and denying many children the opportunities that just ten years ago we took for granted in Shrewsbury.
Sadly, the cuts last year may have been just the beginning, and more may be on the horizon as costs continue to increase before the current population bulge passes through the system. One of the frustrations that I experienced first hand during my tenure on the School Committee is that people all line up at these meetings to talk about the effects of large class sizes, but few, if any, have any realistic and tangible suggestions for what to do about the problem. Contrary to what some may think, the problem is really a simple mathematical formula that I would hope even our fourth grade students understand.
Here is the magic formula to understanding the secret of class sizes. This isn’t rocket science guys, and in fact, it really only has a few parts:
Funds Available divided by Average Teacher Salary equals Number of Teachers
Number of Students divided by Number of Teachers equals Class Size
That’s basically it. To reduce class sizes, you either need more money, to hire more teachers at the same rate, or you need lower salaries to enable you to hire more teachers for the same money. Make no mistake, I think the solution to this equation is to get more money. Get an override on the ballot, vote yes, and hire more teachers. If the Selectmen that you voted for keep saying they won’t put one on the ballot, and allow you the democratic right to vote, then honestly the public needs to unify and put pressure on them to change their mind. They’re all great, hard working people that want only the best for our town. Remember though that only one member of the Board currently has children in the schools, and they all have to answer to ALL of the Shrewsbury voters, not just those with young children. Right now, it’s probably the “lower taxes” folks who are exhibiting a larger voice, and our biggest enemy here is public apathy and lack of engagement in the process. Beth Casavant spoke brilliantly of that at last nights meeting when she question why more parents weren’t there, and talked about how many feel that they come to hearings, fill out surveys and nothing changes anyway so they stop bothering.
If, however, there is no more money to be had then in order to reduce class size we need to reduce personnel costs in some way. It’s been done before, both in Shrewsbury and around the country, both in education, and in a host of different fields. One method is to replace some of our most experienced teachers, currently earning almost $90,000 per 10 month/182 day school year, or nearly $500 per day, with newer teachers earning half of that. This allows you to get two positions out of one. Shrewsbury tried this last year with some success, offering an early retirement program which provided an incentive buyout to teachers eligible to retire in order to free up those salaries to fund other positions. Another option, common in many industries would be to work with the unions to get a one year salary concession to let the public resources catch up to the need. In fields from the auto industry to the airlines, workers have routinely stepped up to take small short-term salary concessions in order to save jobs and thus improve working conditions. To put it in perspective (and someone please check my math), a 1 year, 1% reduction in salary, combined with other options, could potentially restore 20 positions. A 2% reduction for one year could mean 40 positions, restoration of programs, and immediate reduction of class sizes.
Are their other ideas besides more money, yes there are many, and they need to be talked about, and vetted with a totally open mind!! One thing is for certain, which is, to paraphrase an old axiom, the fact that without doing things which have not been tried, we won’t see different results than we had in the past. Last night I called upon the Shrewsbury School Committee to appoint an “Innovation Task Force,” made up of parents and educators, that will meet completely independently of the committee and look at other districts to see what completely innovative methods are showing success around the nation. We don’t after all, need to reinvent the wheel. This independent committee would present their report at a public hearing, and make their specific recommendations. Some of those might include simple changes in the mechanisms of instruction delivery, that would improve efficiency at the upper grade levels and thus allow more positions to be used at the elementary ages where class sizes are a larger problem. I spoke about that topic last night briefly, citing the fact that the heterogeneous nature of the elementary classroom makes small class sizes far more important than at the most advanced level where college professors routinely teach homogenous classes of 300 students at a time in a lecture hall format, using multiple choice tests that are optically graded etc.
Other districts have leveraged technology to try to augment the experience for students at the high school level through the use of free online learning courses at local colleges. No, I’m not talking about “replacing teachers with technology,” and your third grade class isn’t going to be taught by an android robot. Rather students will be allowed to take some electives for both college and high school credit, as we already allow some of them to do using the “virtual high school” system at the high school. Several top colleges including Harvard and MIT have introduced a FREE program calls Education X (www.edx.org) in which hundreds of thousands of students can take high level courses online. Others colleges allow for dual enrollment, where high school students can take courses online or on campus, again receiving full college credit that the high school can also allow to fill graduation requirements.
Again, I don’t claim to have all of the answers here, but I do know that the answer doesn’t lie in continuing to decimate our schools by reducing more programs and teachers, nor nor will the answer come from bleeding dry the parents with fees for breathing oxygen in the hallways. As Mr. Gutekanst articulately explained last night, it’s truly hard to believe that over $1 million dollars in fees is coming from parents in a public school district. The key lies in getting parents to speak out for what they believe in, and I mean ALL the parents. Why is it always Beth, Christa, Kathleen, Hannah etc., or the dozen+ others who are constantly stepping up to advocate for our children’s needs. The parents of Shrewsbury’s children are an indominable force if only they were to get up and truly advocate. That sounds easy, but lets remember that we live in a town where a turnout of 10% of eligible voters is considered a miracle. If you truly care..then show it. Send emails to the School Committee and Board of Selectmen, reach out to your friends, start a blog, comment here. Anything would be a start, and go a long, long way to ensuring a positive future for Shrewsbury’s most valuable natural resource, our children.