The Sandwich School Committee spent the better part of its bi-monthly meeting Wednesday night trying to find a way to bridge a gap in the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.
Facing a gap of approximately $313,000, Superintendent C. Richard Canfield told the committee the options now left are increasing athletic fees, imposing transportation fees, eliminating staff or cutting programs.
The committee agreed not to eliminate staff or programs, but to charge a $100 fee to students in grades 7 to 12 who ride the bus, $100 to high school students for a parking sticker to the school lot, and the use of future School Choice funds to offset the remainder of the deficit.
Dr. Canfield told the committee that any further cutting of teaching staff, “would move the class size outside a palatable range.”
Four teacher positions have already been slated to be cut from the school district.
Dr. Canfield said he would not divulge which teachers or which programs might be cut “because of the undue stress it would put on employees, but also because of legalities involved with contracts that must be sorted out.”
Dr. Canfield also pointed out that during a February 16 meeting the board of selectmen questioned why money that had come in from the state through the School Choice program was not being earmarked for next year’s budget to help close the gap. Selectmen told the committee that the School Choice money could offset the salaries of the four teachers whose jobs would otherwise be jeopardized.
Both Dr. Canfield and committee Chairman Shaun P. Cahill explained that School Choice funding is typically allocated for the following year’s budget because it is an unknown amount during the budget creation process. Mr. Cahill said the money was being set aside for the FY 2014 budget and that to do otherwise, as in applying it to this year’s budget, would be “fiscally irresponsible.”
On the subject of fees, the committee members expressed their reluctance to raise existing fees or institute new ones.
“Some people call them fees, some people call them taxes,” committee Chairman Shaun P. Cahill said.
While arguing against the use of fees, Mr. Cahill did tell committee members that the policy in Sandwich has always been “if there’s a child who want to participate but can’t pay, they’re never denied.”
Committee member Robert P. Catalini said he was “firmly opposed” to fees. However, he said that in spite of his opposition to fees, he was more opposed to cutting staff or programs. He suggested that the committee vote to increase fees, use money from the School Choice fund, and ask the selectmen to find a way to cover the remainder.
“How can you rely on fees?” committee member Marie A. Kangas questioned. Ms. Kangas argued that if students are hit with either a bus fee or a fee for a sticker allowing them to park in the school lot, “parents will bring their kids to school.” As for user fees, she suggested that parents will tell their children that they cannot afford to pay for them to take part in after-school activities or sports.
Committee vice chairman Andrea M. Killion also disagreed with the imposition of fees, saying “I think there are certain things we should provide for free to the students and their families as part of the educational program.”
Ms. Killion also questioned whether the committee should revisit the creation of new staff positions in next year’s budget, pointing specifically at a new foreign language teacher at the high school. She said that if the committee’s goal was to create a “level-service budget” then adding staff was not the right way to proceed.
Dr. Canfield said that the new position is not being funded with “new money.” It is actually money that was moved from another another staff position. He said it was necessary to up the staffing at the high school to meet the accreditation standards of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The association calls for a school of Sandwich High School’s size to offer a program of 160 courses. Sandwich only offers 128.
He also argued to keep the three new coordinator positions created at the high school. He said they were absolutely necessary to move forward with the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program.
Ms. Killion said she agreed with Dr. Canfield on the issue of STEM, but also questioned whether curriculum should be changed, or if something else could be cut “before we pass the cost off to the parents.”
Most of the board members eventually said that, while it was against their principles, they would agree to the transportation and athletic fees, over cutting curriculum or staff.
“If what we’re looking for is what’s best for the students of this town, then it’s to have programs and staff in the classrooms,” she said. Member Nancy A. Crossman sided with Ms. Kangas, saying “It’s ugly having to even think about this, but to take away the proposals for the curriculum is not acceptable.”
The school committee meets with the finance committee Tuesday night, and then with the board of selectmen a week later on Thursday.