I'm doing a short blog post tonight largely to remind readers that there will be a public hearing on the 2011 proposed budget starting at 7 pm on Tuesday, February 2nd in town hall -- NOT in the high school (the meeting will start at 6:30 pm, but the budget hearing will start at 7 pm). After the public comments, the School Committee will discuss priorities and changes to the budget, so this is a really important meeting to attend if you can. Also, it will be televised live - so you can watch it live, if you can't attend (and can send in comments we can read later, before voting the final budget next week).
As I've prepared for tomorrow night's meeting -- by reading budget priorities -- it strikes me that what the SC (and the principals, and the superintendent, and other administrators) needs to do is make choices (hence the title of this post). We have a certain amount of money (and time in the school day), and thus really what we are tasked with is choosing different priorities - and for me, it would be very helpful to have feedback from the community about these choices. We often get comments (at meetings, via email) that are simply about saving a particular program -- save wind ensemble, or Russian, or wood technology, or whatever. But what we are required to do is to make choices -- so, if you want to save wind ensemble (for example), you need to pay for that somehow, which means cutting something else. So while I'm interested in hearing what people want SAVED, I'm also very interested in hearing what choices people would make to pay for those priority programs.
Here's one example the SC has discussed a lot over the past few weeks: should we increase class sizes in core academic departments IN ORDER to save electives (e.g., wood technology, wind ensemble, etc.)? My view on this is that increasing class sizes is the right way to go, for several reasons:
First, it is MUCH easier to later decrease class sizes as we climb out of these tough economic times than it is to re-start a program that we've cut. In other words, you can add some extra math/English classes much easier than you can re-start a wood technology program or wind ensemble once those staff members have been fired. So, one of cuts seems easier to "take back" in a year or two than the other.
Second, in terms of the educational experience for HS kids, I think it is much more of a big deal to not be able to take a class/participate in a music ensemble at all than it is to sit in a class room with 1 or 2 extra kids. I just don't think it changes the learning experience for kids that much to sit in, say a social studies class of 25 kids versus 23 kids, whereas I think it is a huge deal to tell a student they can't take ANY wood technology class or participate in the jazz ensemble.
Third, although teachers would clearly prefer smaller class sizes, we are not talking about HUGE increases in class size in terms of what these sizes have historically been. For example, in 2003-04, the average class size in English was 21.8, math was 23.2, science was 24.3, and social studies was 23.7. As of RIGHT now, all of those class sizes (except English) are lower -- English and social studies are now 22, and math and science are now 21. So, our class sizes right now are actually lower in most cases than they were 6 years ago. Even under the worst case budgets, class sizes only climb to 24 (in science) to 26 (in social studies). Now, obviously parents, kids, and teachers would rather have class size averages of 21/22 like we have now than class sizes of 25, but again, this is the WORST case projection (which clearly we aren't facing, with the increases in local aid now projected).
Now, some people might disagree with me and say it is BETTER to cut whole programs/departments than to increase class sizes so much -- and if so, let me know! But the key thing I'm looking for in terms of voting a budget is understanding what types of trade-offs people think we should make -- so if you want me to push to save "your" program, I'd also really like to know what else you think we could cut to save it.
One more thing: discussions of budgets these days invariably lead to discussions of overrides. I haven't made a decision about whether I'll support an override, or whether I'll even take a position on an override. But I believe asking voters in a tough financial time to pay additional taxes is a very, very serious request, and I'm not willing/able to make this request unless (a) I believe that the schools really, truly need these additional resources, and (b) we are not going to be able to find adequate resources through other ways (e.g., more local aid), and (c) passing an override this year is good for not just the short-term (e.g., next year) viability of the schools but also the longer-term good (e.g., if we pass an override now, how does it impact our budget for 2012, 2013, etc.)? I'm still giving those questions a lot of thought, and gathering as much information as I can.
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.