Schools face many challenges

Feb 7, 2018 by

Published in the February 7, 2018 edition

LYNNFIELD — Fiscal year 2019 is going to be an incredibly challenging year for the School Department, Superintendent Jane Tremblay told the Board of Selectmen and School Committee last week.

Tremblay unveiled the School Department’s proposed budget to the two boards on Jan. 29. The recommended spending plan for FY’19 totals $24,850,140, representing a 4.5 percent increase from FY’18’s $23,780,038 budget. Tremblay noted 87 percent of the school budget is allocated for salaries, 7 percent is for out of district special education tuition and transportation costs, and 6 percent is for additional items.

“We really want to move our school district forward while demonstrating fiscal responsibility,” said Tremblay.

The school system is experiencing a spike in enrollment at Summer Street School, which is why Tremblay is requesting an additional first grade teacher, totaling $65,599. She told the selectmen and School Committee the district’s class size guidelines for kindergarten and first grade is between 18 and 22 students. She said there are 91 kindergarteners enrolled at Summer Street and school officials are projecting a 10 percent increase in enrollment before the 2018-2019 school year begins. If a first grade teacher is not added to Summer Street, Tremblay said the elementary school will be forced to run four first grade classes that would each contain 25 students.

“With a fifth teacher, the classes would be approximately 20 students,” said Tremblay.

Tremblay also noted school officials are closely monitoring the incoming enrollment of kindergarteners and said the School Department might need to offer a fifth kindergarten class. She said adding a fifth kindergarten class would be “unprecedented.”

“The preliminary numbers for the Summer Street School kindergarten class coming in for 2018-2019 is high already,” said Tremblay. “Kindergarten and first grade are the most difficult numbers to track because that is when we get most of our move-ins. We watch those numbers like a blizzard coming down Route 128.”

In the wake of needing to add an additional first grade class, the School Department is being forced to eliminate Community Schools’ Preschool Extended Day (PREDS) program next year. The decision to eliminate PREDS has sparked a backlash from local parents.

Selectman Dick Dalton inquired if the town needs to consider adding modular classrooms to Summer Street.

“We have a lot of infrastructure issues coming up for the town and we need to prioritize things,” said Dalton. “To me, the schools would be a lot higher than a lot of other things on our wish list.”

Tremblay said there are “a lot of ebbs and flows” associated with kindergarten and first grade enrollment.

“There were some times we were super tight and could not fit another thing in, and two years later we would get some relief,” said Tremblay. “I know we are going to be okay for next year even if we have to put a kindergarten class in.”

“I think it’s something to keep an eye on,” added School Committee Chairman Tim Doyle.

School Committee member Jamie Hayman noted moving the preschool to Summer Street has been a positive addition to the elementary school because preschoolers now have access to programs such as music and physical education.

“If you talked to parents, they would tell you the preschool program is in a much better place than it was five years ago,” said Hayman. “But the reality is it’s two classrooms, and that has given us a little less flexibility than the past.”

Positions cut

With the town facing a tight budget for FY’19, Tremblay said the School Department was forced to eliminate four part-time positions from the budget. Three of the positions are a Guidance Department clerk, nurse’s aide and media center aide at Lynnfield High School. Tremblay also said a middle school media center aide will be cut in FY’19.

“The hardest part about these reductions is we are losing personnel who have been instrumental in our school district for a lot of years and have given a lot to the success of our schools,” Tremblay. “We pondered this for hours and hours with the goal in mind that we wanted to stay as far away from our academic classrooms as possible. That is how we came up with this list. It’s tough, but these are the decisions we had to make in order to make a 4.5 percent budget.”

Selectman Phil Crawford suggested school officials try to find a way to maintain the nurse’s aide position because that person could help the town’s substance abuse coalition, A Healthy Lynnfield, undertake different initiatives. He also aired concerns about eliminating the LHS media center aide.

“If you go back to before the recession and during the recession, the nurse’s aide and library aide were a couple of positions that were never cut,” said Crawford. “They were cut because they were on the lower end of the pay scale, but they are extremely important. I know it’s tough to make cuts. When I coached youth sports, it was the hardest day of the year. It has to be 10 times worse when it’s people you have worked with for years. I would like the School Committee to find some money to keep those positions.”

Tremblay thanked Crawford for sharing his concerns.

“I completely understand where you are coming from,” said Tremblay. “When we are making these cuts, we are going line item by line item. We spent hours discussing what we could cut, and I will tell you there is not one position we could cut and not feel it. Our school district doesn’t have a lot of fluff. We don’t have fluff in our staffing and we don’t have fluff in our budget. We were trying to stay as far away from the classroom as possible.”

During the public participation portion of the Board of Selectmen meeting, LHS media center aide Frances Fleming gave a speech in defense of her job.

“The high school will be in violation of the NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) staffing recommendations for high school libraries,” said Fleming. “The high school will not be in compliance with the American Association of Libraries standards for staffing in school libraries. The standards call for having one full-time assistant.”

Fleming also argued the LHS Maker Space will not be open if it cannot be supervised. She claimed the media center will be closed when Media Specialist Janice Alpert is at lunch and during her prep period.  She also noted the Student Help Desk will be restricted going forward.

“I know these are tough cuts, but these are not highly paid positions and they are extremely valuable,” said Fleming. “The librarian is going to be doing the aide’s job.”

Tremblay also said academic tutoring hours will be reduced at the elementary and middle schools, and substitute coverage will be restructured as well.

In response to a question from School Committee member Rich Sjoberg, Tremblay said students will still be receiving the necessary tutoring at the three schools but groups will be larger than they have been in the past.

“Our at-risk kids will take priority in this reduction,” said Tremblay.

School Finance Director Tom Geary informed the Villager “the cost of reducing the positions and the reductions to the operating budgets is over $170,000.”

Despite eliminating the four part-time positions and cutting operating budgets, Tremblay said the proposed FY’19 budget will preserve class sizes, instructional groups, full-time instructional staff and extra curricular opportunities for students. She also said the proposed budget will allow the school system to continue district-wide and school-based programs including social-emotional learning initiatives.

Tremblay noted the school system would have liked to add a full-time adjustment counselor for the middle school, but was not able to fund the request.

SPED costs rise

Tremblay said out of district special education costs are increasing in FY’19, totaling $1,077,742.

“We have seen an increase in special education costs as well,” said Tremblay. “We have seen an increase in some of our out of district placements in terms of people moving into the district with solidified IEPs (individualized education programs) that we need to honor.”

The School Department has budgeted $415,849 for special education transportation. Tremblay also noted school officials lost $20,000 in special education grant funding.

Further complicating matters, Geary informed the Villager “the current year’s special education circuit breaker reimbursement is 65 percent.” He noted Governor Charlie Baker’s “budget has a $10 million increase in circuit breaker funding for next year from $281 million to $291 million.”

“But it’s too early to tell whether that will remain in the budget and what percentage that would result in for next year’s reimbursement for individual districts,” added Geary. “In FY’18, the district is responsible for about the first $43,000 of any tuition. After that, the district is reimbursed 65 percent of every dollar spent beyond that amount. The reimbursement occurs the year after the expense is incurred. There is no reimbursement for out of district transportation.”

During the meeting, Crawford inquired if school officials are anticipating any additional special education expenditures that have not been factored into the proposed FY’19 budget.

“It’s hard to predict,” said Special Services Director Kara Mauro.

Selectman compliments officials

Dalton thanked school officials and the School Committee for expediting the budget process for FY’19.

“It allows us to put things into proper perspective and develop priorities,” said Dalton. “The 4.5 percent takes me back a bit because I want the overall town expenditures to be at a sustainable level, and I get concerned about the lack of new growth. But on the other hand, I would compliment the team on coming in with a budget where if you took out the mandated costs, it’s really 3 percent. It’s fiscally responsible that you have been able to do that with contractual obligations. I think it’s a job well done under difficult circumstances.”

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