Are schools at a crisis point?

Apr 12, 2018 by

Published in the April 13, 2018 edition

MELROSE — The School Committee this week passed along a spending plan for next year to Mayor Gail Infurna and the Board of Aldermen that has a significant hole in it.

Before they started debating, then dicing and slicing, the fiscal year 2019 budget proposal over the last several weeks, the School Committee and administrators were looking at $33,305,048 needed to run the School Department in 2018-19. On Tuesday, they decided they could not responsibly close a $667,000 gap in the document and were out of options.

As a result, education supporters and others say school spending is at a critical point and an override of Proposition 2 1/2 to adequately operate the system may be needed.

Infurna was the only School Committee member who did not back passing along a budget proposal that is $667,000 out of whack, probably because she and her financial team now have to try to come up with the money — culled from other city departments — to further close the schools’ budget deficit.

Parents and teachers crammed into the Aldermanic Chamber at City Hall during the School Committee meeting urging that educational services need to remain intact.

One glimpse into what some are calling a crisis in education funding comes from Veterans Memorial Middle School Principal Brent Conway. He sent the following memo out to parents Monday.

 “I have some difficult news to deliver regarding our current budgetary situation for the FY19 budget (the 18-19 school year). I am scheduled to appear at the School Committee Meeting Tuesday evening this week to discuss this further but this will impact your child and the manner in which MVMMS is structured.

“As we proceeded through the budget deliberations it became apparent in the past two weeks that the city was not going to be able to fund the complete district proposed budget and there was approximately a $900K gap. The administrative team was able to make some reductions and changes and get that gap closer to 700K but this where things have stalled. The reality is, our enrollment at MVMMS, currently under 800 kids, is much lower that it has been and lower than it will be. In fact, the current 7th Grade class has less than 250 kids where as the 8th grade class from 3 years ago was 296 and the K-3 classes next year are between 320-340 students. The High School will be close to 1100 students next year and in prior years they were down to 900. It is an undeniable fact that we are at an enrollment dip while the other schools in Melrose are swelling.

“The district must close this gap and without an influx of money from either city or the state, cuts must be made. I have been asked to reduce the Middle School portion of the budget by around $250,000.

“For your perspective, our entire materials and supply budget for the school is $70,000. So obviously this is no small reduction and there is no way to make this not hurt.

“I think we have been good stewards of the tax payers’ money while offering students an excellent and diverse learning experience. As we saw the reduction in enrollment we have made, what I consider to be, sizable reductions in the past two years to account for this change. Our supplies and materials budget was over $100,000 a few years ago and now it is $70,000. We have reduced our teaching staff by 3 staff members just in the last two years by simply sharing staff with the HS and we have lost 3 administrators in the past three years shifting the burden of supervision, teacher coaching and support to fewer administrators.

“In order to reach the budgetary reduction number we will be significantly reducing our supplies and materials budget but also must cut 4 teaching positions. We have some options on how we will do this and I will propose some options to the school committee on Tuesday night. However the most likely scenario is running a combined team for grades 7 and 8. Another way to view this is running a ‘half team’ for staff who teach 2 sections of 7th grade content and 2 sections of 8th grade content. With grade level enrollments in these classes next year around the 250-260 mark, this is a conceivable action but class size will climb from 22 to 26-28. However in order to make it work it would require moving many staff either physically to a new room and possibly to a new grade. It also means that students in 7th grade would not be restricted to one team (de-teaming) much like we have done in 8th grade this year. This is the best way to ensure we have balanced class sizes. This impacts 6th grade teachers, SPED staff and elective teachers too. Any further cuts beyond this, and we must seriously revisit whether a middle school model is sustainable and if the budget only supports a junior high school model. I do not believe that is in the best interest of students, but we may not have a choice.

“None of this is easy for me to write and I am obviously distressed to share this,” Conway concluded.

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