SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – Many of us tuned in to tonights School Committee meeting in the hopes that there might be a glimmer of hope on the horizon. After all, that’s usually what happens. They present an initial budget with a huge deficit, the town manager proposes a modest increase, and by the time the next meeting comes around the school request has come down a bit, the town manager comes up, we get great news from Beacon Hill. and somehow it all comes together. Well, that didn’t happen last year, when we lost 20+ teaching positions and sent class sizes through the roof, and if it was your expectation that it was going to happen tonight, you were in for a big surprise. I know I was sitting there stunned at what I heard.
Not only did the numbers not get any better, but they actually got worse, if that’s humanly possible. With a huge increase in students leaving the district for vocational and special education, and guidance from the state to expect much less circuit breaker funding in the coming year, we are now an additional 500k in the red. Our out of district special education population alone has increased by over 30%, to 92 students, at a cost of roughly $4.9 Million. At this point, it appears as though we are looking at a budget proposal that is close to $5M above the current levels, and that is bad news by any definition.
Forget the initial budget proposal, of adding new positions and reducing class sizes which although is was clearly well intended, was a pipe dream from the beginning, In retrospect, even proposing it was probably not a great idea, giving the scathing rebuke the School Committee received from some members of the Board of Selectmen over it. Parenthetically kudos to the Chairperson Erin Canzano and other members of the School Committee for very respectfully firing back tonight, letting the Selectmen know that it’s not as easy as they think to formulate a school budget in January when you have absolutely no idea what funding you will have available from the state, and what your costs will be for your out of district tuitions until April.
In any event, I can see what the School Committee was trying to do with that initial budget, which was to say “We hear you parents, and this is what it will take to do what you want.” Perhaps it would have been best to present merely a level service budget from the get go, and then just have a single slide that said “by the way this is what it would cost to improve.” Anyway, that’s water under the bridge at this point, and this is what we have to work with.
Where does that leave us? Well, the news is clearly not good, and my guess is that we are going to be looking at some serious cuts in staff in the coming year, likely far more that we saw last year. The main problem that the district faces right now is that it appears that there are about $3 Million in “non-optional increases” for the coming year. That’s not adding teachers, reducing class sizes, investing in technology, buying new books, or anything at all to improve the situation. Rather that is just to keep the boat afloat, and pump the water out as fast as it is coming in. The problem is that Shrewsbury as a town doesn’t have that $3 Million to give. In fact, just to get to the budget that the town manager is working with right now, entails him using over $3 Million from our emergency free cash account, just to balance the numbers, so obviously unless they invest in a printing press for town hall and start printing money, this is what we have to work with. Oh, and if that wasn’t gloomy enough, word today from the Shrewsbury School Department business manager Liam Hurley that the federal sequestration that is likely to kick in next week due to the inability of our federal officials to work together may impact all of our federal grants as well, costing us even more.
At this point, no matter what happens with the numbers, it would appear to me that they won’t be able to level fund the district. Even if somehow, someway, the school department can get down to a level service budget requiring a only a $2.5M increase, and even if somehow the town manager comes up with another $500k, we are still looking at a $2M operational deficit, and in an organization where the vast bulk of the cost is in staff, I have no doubt at all that we are going to be looking at serious and substantive cuts in FY14, which by my thumbnail guess would come out to probably 25-30 additional teaching, administrative and paraprofessional positions. Certainly, while they are hoping against hope for good news, Dr. Sawyer is far to brilliant of an administrator to not be already planning for where cuts will have to be made. At this point, said school committee member Sandy Fryc, we need to look at “mitigating damage to the system.”
Ultimately, the big decision they will face as a committee is not whether to make staffing cuts or not, but only whether to emphasize class size or programming. In other words, do you keep programming, and let class sizes rise, or do you cut entire programs like 6th, 7th and 8th grade language, and focus only on the statutorily required courses. Think that won’t happen? Those of you who have been in town as long as I have will remember the days when we had languages taught at the elementary level, and chipped away at that year after year until it was gone. There are pro’s and con’s to each, of course, with many actually preferring higher class sizes because once you cut a program, it rarely comes back.
At this point, and moving forward over the next few weeks, I have no doubt that everything will be on the table, and get a serious look, from the athletic programs that always seem to be a target, to the allure of saving $1M+ a year by eliminating all non-mandated buses. Then we will probably see the knee-jerk reactions, increasing fees to parents for activities and athletics, and doing other things like that which will bring in only a few dollars, and really just serve to ruffle more than a few feathers in the process. Perhaps the district will try another early retirement program, as they did last year, in the hopes of having some of the higher paid positions filled by new staff at a far lower salary, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them reach out to the fantastic union leadership and see if they are willing to work with them on some sort of temporary compensation adjustment. It’s certainly not unheard of within unions for them to band together and agree to a temporary wage freeze to save jobs. In the end, I would conjecture that the district will try to do absolutely anything the can to save each and every teaching position they can, and look seriously at the ancillary (yet very valuable) positions, from department heads to curriculum coordinators and see just what they can struggle by without. Either way, it’s not going to be a pretty picture, so stay tuned as the situation continues to evolve.
Meanwhile, in the background, the frustration grows and grows. The parents are frustrated beyond belief, with many continuing to scream out for an operational override, and threatening to just pull their kids and send them to charter school, on Shrewsbury’s dime of course. Others in Shrewsbury without kids in the schools, cry out just as loudly that we have to live within our means, and question why we keep agreeing to teaching contracts that we know we aren’t going to have the money to pay for later. The School Committee is frustrated because they truly want to do the right thing, and don’t have the resources, and the Board of Selectmen made it crystal clear that they know that there is a budget issue, and don’t need to get letters from residents telling them that. In the middle of it all, is our town manager, trying to do the best he can with the resources he has, and to balance the many different factions that he has to answer to. The sad thing in situations like this is that no matter what happens, there are no winners, only losers, and the biggest losers of all I fear, are going to be our children.