Thursday, January 14, 2010
By NICK GRABBE
Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez has taken a stand on which cuts to the regional school budget would be manageable and which would result in drastic changes to the quality of education.
On Tuesday, he will present his recommendations for cuts in the elementary budget to the Amherst School Committee. Next Thursday, Jan. 21, there will be a public forum on both budgets at 7 p.m. at the high school library.
Rodriguez's recommendations, if adopted, would put next year's regional school spending close to this year's. But they would still require cuts of about $1.9 million from a level that would keep services constant, largely because employee expenses are due to increase because of negotiated contracts.
The superintendent - who spoke at Tuesday's Regional School Committee meeting - is seeking to hold the line on cuts to academic departments, which would result in bigger class sizes. To limit the cuts in this way, there needs to be some combination of a tax override, more state money than expected, and/or union givebacks of negotiated raises.
"I want to tell taxpayers that this is not pain-free," he said of the manageable cuts. "We are compromising the range of offerings, student supports and professional development. It is a downsizing of services to children. However, this is, in my opinion, the number we can cut to and still maintain the kind of educational services we need to provide."
His recommendation is for a high school budget that is $871,776 lower than it would be with "level services," and middle school spending that's $430,893 lower. In addition, he has identified $620,609 in reductions to the central office budget, including a decline in health insurance costs, consolidation of the East Amherst and South Amherst alternative school programs and transportation savings.
At the high school, the biggest hits would be to special education, which would lose 2.4 positions, and the Family and Consumer Science Department, whose 2.8 positions would be eliminated. But he wants to preserve the academic departments and the technical/business/computer department, which had been thought to be at risk.
Rodriguez's plan would cut some special education and physical education spending at the middle school. It would accept some cuts but seek to preserve some funding, and thus limit class size increases, in team teaching, world languages and music.
Anything beyond his recommended cuts would put the school system at what Rodriguez called "a point of no return."
"This would decimate our school system, greatly increasing class sizes and doing nothing but the bare essentials, basically stripping it down," he said.
A worst-case scenario - stemming from a failed override, less state aid than expected and no union givebacks - would require an additional $700,000 in cuts, a contingency for which Rodriguez has planned. "It became clear that cuts of that magnitude would undermine our ability to provide a rigorous and enriching academic education for all students," he said.
At the high school, the cuts Rodriguez wants to avoid include the technical/business/computer department, positions in the academic departments, one guidance position and the Individualized Reading Program.
At the middle school, these over-the-line cuts include further reductions in world languages, music, special education and team teachers.
On Tuesday, the School Committee had its first chance to react to Rodriguez's cut list.
Member Andy Churchill praised the superintendent for putting central office cuts ahead of classroom reductions; Kathleen Anderson expressed concern over cuts affecting struggling students; and Tracy Farnham spoke about cuts to physical education.
Member Steve Rivkin presented data showing that enrollment has declined by 9.9 percent since 2003-04 and the number of teachers has dropped by 12.7 percent during that period. He said this represents a total of four teachers in both the middle and high school, adding that this is not evidence of a substantial decline in resources and that cuts have not led to radically larger classes.
Principal Mark Jackson said, if the worst-case budget moves forward, class sizes at the high school would increase, the ratio of students to professional staff would go up, and the number of social studies classes, English electives, world languages and performing arts ensembles would decrease.
Five speakers at Tuesday's meeting defended electives in art, music and wood technology. "We can't lose these courses; they are what makes a person whole," said Victoria Shaw, who said her son benefited from a wood technology course.
In other news
Rodriguez also announced Tuesday that ads for a new middle school principal will be placed immediately.
"Mark Jackson has been principal of both the high school and middle school since Glenda Cresto resigned in September. He will continue in the dual position for the rest of the school year," Rodriguez said. The deadline for applications is Feb. 26.
Starting Feb. 2, meetings will be held at Town Hall so that they can be televised live, with a new starting time of 6:30 p.m.
Minutes of meetings will be posted on arps.org within 24 hours, Rodriguez said.
Hundreds of parents whose children have left the school system over the past five years have been contacted about their reasons, and there will be a report next month, he said.
No teachers have applied for sabbatical leave next year, he said.
A consultant is concluding an evaluation of the middle school and will report to the School Committee in February, he said.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.