Falmouth Superintendent Proposes Cutting 44 School Positions to Balance Budget

School committee members discuss upcoming staff cuts at their meeting Tuesday night. From left to right are school committee chairman Judith Fenwick, superintendant Bonny Gifford, and school committee members Emily Davern, Laura Peterson, Susan Augusta, Donna Mattison-Earls, Samuel Patterson, and Alan Jacobs.
ELIZABETH W. SAITO/ENTERPRISE - School committee members discuss upcoming staff cuts at their meeting Tuesday night. From left to right are school committee chairman Judith Fenwick, superintendant Bonny Gifford, and school committee members Emily Davern, Laura Peterson, Susan Augusta, Donna Mattison-Earls, Samuel Patterson, and Alan Jacobs.

“This is the saddest night.”

The quote from Susan E. Augusta of the Falmouth school committee captured the bleak mood at Tuesday night’s school committee meeting, when superintendent of schools Bonny L. Gifford proposed cutting 44 staff positions to balance next year’s budget.

The cuts will include 21 staff assistants and teacher aides; 15 teachers; six administrators; five clerical staff; three student services staff; and one custodian.

Seven new positions will be added, and several positions are being “reorganized.”

Those cuts and additions translate to the following percentages. Teaching assistants will be reduced by 21 percent; teaching staff by 5 percent; administration 15 percent; clerical 13 percent; custodial 2 percent; and student services will see zero reduction.
Dr. Gifford said the cuts would balance the budget but are “going to be such a disservice to our children.”

“I’m having trouble sleeping at night because this is so catastrophic to my sense of social responsibility,” said committee member Samuel H. Patterson Jr.

Mr. Patterson said teaching assistants, who are hardest hit by the cuts, are often the ones to give struggling students the extra attention they need to succeed.

I’m having trouble sleeping at night because this is so catastrophic to my sense of social responsibility. 

                                 Samuel Patterson

“What positions are no longer there?” asked school committee member Emily Davern.

“I cannot speak [about specific staff members] at this time,” Dr. Gifford said. The impacted staff should be notified first before the public knows, she said.

Of the 15 teaching positions to be eliminated, four are regular education teachers, four are special education teachers, and seven are “specials” teachers. “Specials” subjects include art, music, gym, and library.

When Dr. Gifford addressed the dozen assembled parents, teachers and school staff in the audience, she had to cut her remarks short as she struggled to hold back tears.

During public comment period, Mullen-Hall School music teacher Teresa Jazo expressed her extreme disappointment that the school’s music program could suffer.

Rising Out of District Costs

A major factor in next year’s budget crunch is the rising cost of “out-of-district” special education facilities, where Falmouth sends special needs students it cannot accommodate in its own schools.

Town meeting member Peter J. Hargraves, precinct nine, asked school officials to be “diligent” and try to keep those students in town, rather than “contracting them out.” 

Gina C. Webber, a parent of two children at Teaticket Elementary School, asked “If we’re reducing [special education] teachers and teaching assistants, aren’t we going to be increasing” the number of students who need to go elsewhere?

School committee member Leah Palmer asked Dr. Gifford if other school districts were facing the same “crisis” in out-of-district costs.

Next year, Falmouth anticipates spending $3.1 million of its own money, and $1.8 million in state funds, to send 60 students to outside facilities. Educating those 60 students, 1.7 percent of the student body, will account for 10 percent of the school’s spending.
In 2008, Falmouth spent $3 million educating 60 out-of-district special needs students; that compares to $5 million to educate the same number of students in 2015.

“The increase in those [program] costs are rampant,” said Dr. Gifford, answering Ms. Palmer’s question. “It will bankrupt towns if it keeps going this way.”

Also squeezing the budget is a teacher contract signed in June of 2013 that stipulates a 2 percent pay raise next year, and a 2.5 percent raise in 2016. Next year the raises represent $1 million in increased salary expenditures.

“Are we really going hog wild? I don’t think so,” said school committee member Laura L. Peterson of the raises, indicating that she thought the pay increases were modest.

“Is that out of line with other town departments?” she asked. “Because I get that thrown in my face all the time.”

The $734,000 budget increase that selectmen approved for the schools on Monday is not enough to cover the salary increases, let alone the $1.3 million increase for out-of-district costs. Hence the lay-offs.

Committee members took issue with the fact that the increase in school employees’ health insurance costs was allotted to the school’s operating budget for the first time this year. Health insurance for all town employees has typically been paid out of the fixed costs portion on the town’s side of the budget.

Health insurance costs for school employees will increase by $265,000. That number was subtracted from the 2.25 percent increase allotted to the schools, decreasing the budget increase from $1 million to the $734,000 figure.

Town manager Julian Suso has said that accounting for school employees’ health care costs in the school’s budget column gives “a more accurate portrayal” of what the town spends on its schools. 

Difficult Budget Year

School committee chairman Judith Fenwick said that this is the “toughest” budget year she has seen in her 12 years on the school committee.

It is common for the schools to see a dozen retirements per year. But this year, five or maybe six teachers will retire, reducing what money can usually be saved by hiring younger, lower-paid replacements. Also, enrollment is projected to increase slightly next year. “We don’t have those vents” of attrition and declining enrollment this year, Ms. Fenwick said.

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“The town throwing the wrench of health care costs” didn’t help either, she added.

This year there are 3,554 students in Falmouth schools and 580 staff members. In 2009 there were 3,830 students and 625 staff members. Both years represent a 6:1 student-staff ratio.

Committee member Emily Davern noted that there is a perception in town hall that the schools have a lot of unnecessary administrators.

When Dr. Gifford addressed the dozen assembled parents, teachers and school staff in the audience, she had to cut her remarks short as she struggled to hold back tears.

Ms. Davern invited selectmen—“if they are concerned about waste”—to shadow the schools’ department heads and central office staff. “So people understand what goes into these positions,” she said. “The unfunded mandates Mark has to deal with or the laws Nancy has to deal with,” she said referring to Mark C. Wilson, director of curriculum and instruction, and Nancy R. Taylor, director of pupil personnel services, who oversees special education.

But Ms. Davern disagreed with Dr. Gifford’s plan to add a director of health, wellness and physical education next year. “I wouldn’t want to cut teachers for that,” she said.

Committee member Alan Jacobs said he saw a “ray of hope” in town manager Julian Suso’s comments at Monday night’s board of selectmen’s meeting. Mr. Suso said: “We have shown in this community an ability to work with our colleagues in the school department ... I am highly confident we will be able to move forward amiably.”

“This is like a storm,” school committee member Terri A. Medeiros said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We had a [financial] blizzard in here in Falmouth [schools], and I think we need some snow removal funds from the town. I hope the town will see this as an emergency.”

There will be an official public hearing on the school budget on January 28 at 6:30 PM at the high school.

There will also be an informal public “informational session” on the school budget next Wednesday, January 22 at 6 PM in the high school library. Dr. Gifford and school officials will make a presentation and field questions from audience members. All are welcome.

Comments

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  • Ric

    How about we look at cutting programs of least educational value? Football, for example. In fact, let's cut the entire sports program before we start cutting teachers and aides and admins. Sports should be a voluntary, out of school endeavor. What's more valuable? To learn to be a conforming, non-dissenting member of a team, or classroom time spent on learning to think critically, on learning, and on learning to learn.
  • tedrowan

    This comment has been removed by a moderator.
  • tedrowan

    I have always looked at sports as being as important as all , that is ALL the other elements of our educational process. From my perspective as a retired high school science teacher, art, music, home economics, p.e. and shop as well as sports are the special niches in our high school that keeps kids coming back to their academic subjects. Undereducated, high school drop outs are a very expensive part of our community. Where an education leads to a job, the lack of an education will led a person into a life of dependency. The support of those that don't make it through high school from social and legal institutions is expensive. Spending money on schools is a better way for society to use their tax money rather than on courts, jails, welfare, and social services. Set a realistic budget, then set a tax rate that supports the proper programs.
  • MrPhelps

    t
  • Willy

    Ric......get a clue, sorry you got picked on in gym class and experienced a tough time in the sports world.Also happy to hear you joined the conforming non dissenting team of sports haters. You have no idea what a young man or woman learn about life participating in athletics or any of our extra curricular activities. Listen to Ted you won nt sound so foolish.
  • MrPhelps

    Wonder why USA ranks 24th in the world for math? Take the 4.9 mill ($4,900,000 looks diff with zero's) and hire 30 special ed teachers with masters degree's at $100,000 each with benefits. 2 kids per teacher with an aid ($25,000 each) and a lunch program and you still have $500,000 left over for books and pencils. Why is it so hard to find detailed 2014 budget online so the layperson can see where cuts should really be made? Start getting involved PEOPLE!
  • Ric

    Sorry, Willy, I wasn't picked on in gym class and I played varsity football with my share of first string starts and I enjoyed most of that time. Nor do I hate sports. But football, basketball, baseball and the rest - that's not the real world that 99.9 percent of high school students need to prepare for. What is foolish, Willy, is to throw teachers out of work while the school wastes money on non-productive sports. What is also foolish is the ton of assumptions you made about me, but perhaps when the teaching staff was teaching students to think clearly and critically you were out on the sports field getting hit in the head. Yes, sports have value, but nowhere near the value of sound academics. I'd like to see the European model adopted here: schools don't invest heavily in sports, and sports are club activities, not school activities and not financially supported by schools. To read the Enterprise, or any other local paper, you'd think the schools were completely defined by their sports teams rather than by their academic strengths and achievements. I think that's a sad commentary on American values.
  • Chrissy

    I agree with Ric. Even though sports have their place as far as teaching students how to work as a team, emphasizing physical fitness, etc, it is still far more important for students to have a sound academic program. Town budgets should be spent focusing on academic needs. Parents can donate and students can fundraise to gather money for sporting activities that can be done as an after school club. Fundraising will teach our kids a sense of responsibility and a sense of monetary value, which is an important concept to have living in a tight economy. An academic focus is essential to ensure that our kids have the right skills to be successful and productive members of society later in life. It is nearly impossible to find a good job in this economy without a college degree, and our academic programs should be focused to allow the greatest number of our students to obtain this success. In a competitive workplace, education is essential.