School Committee Delays Vote Again, Discusses Bleak Financial Forecast
The School Department could face up to a $5 million budget gap in fiscal 2012.
School Committee last night decided to further delay a vote that could expand facilities at some of the district's growing schools, including F.A. Day Middle School.
"We're in the middle of a very robust conversation about short term facilities," said Committee Chairwoman Claire Sokoloff.
At an Oct. 25 meeting, Sokoloff announced that the committee would push out the vote in order to make the best and most informed decision for the district and its students.
Sokoloff noted last night that the committee has received extensive information from the School Department on the effects of enrollment and various construction options on the schools. The group will have to weigh and balance all the factors that have been presented, Sokoloff said.
"We will come back to all of the research that the school department has amassed and have a full conversation and deliberation," Sokoloff said. "We will come to a recommendation and conclusion in the next few weeks."
Some of that information came just last night from Superintendent David Fleishman, who told the committee that F.A. Day's existing spaces for students with special education needs and english-language learning programs are not adequate.
In the memo, Fleishman said Day will see a net increase of 26 sixth grade students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), which does not include those sixth graders entering the school's city-wide program for students (who would not normally enter the middle school, but have elected to enroll at Day).
The current special education spaces, Fleishman said, consist of three small classrooms that seat a maximum of eight students. With the projected increase, though, the number of students in each room will exceed that space. Groups of more than 12 are not in compliance with Special Education regulations, Fleishman added.
"We may not be able to fit all the kids in these rooms," Fleishman said.
In addition, Fleishman said the expansion of the school's English-Language Learners program (ELL) will be difficult with 30 students already housed in a windowless, converted classroom.
Also, with current enrollment projections, Fleishman's memo outlined information that seemed to rule out redistricting some Day students to Brown Middle School, as the all the classroom spaces will be needed over the next few years.
In addition, the School Committee will hold a special meeting next Monday at 7 p.m. in the Education Center. where it is expected to continue the facilities discussion as well as hold a public hearing for Newton North High School naming recommendations.
Bleak budget forecast
The subcommittee in charge of budget guidelines presented an initial, draft report last night outlining a potential $5 million gap in the fiscal 2012 budget.
With Mayor Setti Warren's equally bleak forecast last month projecting an $8 million gap in the city's fiscal 2012 budget, committee Vice Chairwoman Reenie Murphy said that translates to a $3-5 million shortfall for the schools.
"These budget guidelines are, frankly, very difficult to write," Murphy said. "The entire thing is focusing on preservation and preserving what we feel is closely aligned to the core mission of the public schools."
Over the last five years, enrollment has increased by more than 600 students and the budget has grown just 4.1 percent a year, the memo reads.
But revenues for the department are dropping, Murphy pointed out, and next year are expected to be less than $2 million, or a growth of 1.2 percent.
For example, stimulus assistance originally set at $2.1 million will be reduced down to just $860,000 next year, Murphy said.
Within the draft document, the committee suggested guidelines such as allowing class sizes to increase, despite the city's prior and current commitment to keep them as low as possible.
"We regret that the current budget constraints no longer afford us with this luxury," the memo reads.
In addition, the guidelines state that the current budget "cannot sustain the number of program offerings" at the different schools. The committee has asked the superintendent to look into programs that have low enrollment and find ways to reduce or consolidate.
"The guidelines say a lot of things never want to say," Murphy said. "The message we're trying to get through here is stick with infrastructure."
The guidelines indicate that "teacher effectiveness" is a top priority within the department and the district should continue to invest in professional development programs with hands-on teaching in the classroom as well as the literacy, math and middle school improvement initiatives.
Sokoloff said the committee will have to think hard about where to allocate resources among the schools, and remembering to ways to cut back while keeping equity in mind.
Committee members underlined the fact that the guidelines will come back in several forms as budget discussion continues among the committee as well as with municipal officials.
"I've heard from the staff an incredible appetite for looking very broadly and deeply to answer those (budget) questions," said committee member Margie Ross Decter, who also worked on the guidelines. "I'm looking forward to further discussion."