In-brief: With in-district per pupil spending in Belmont already about $3,000 per student/per year below the State average per district our public schools entered the pandemic stretched to the breaking point. Now we risk plunging into a full-blown fiscal crisis with layoffs of instructional staff, increased class sizes and cuts to supplies. If you oppose cuts to the Schools, please write to the Select Board (firstname.lastname@example.org ), the Warrant Committee (email@example.com) and the School Committee (firstname.lastname@example.org)and make your feelings known. Also, attend the joint School Committee/Warrant Committee/Select Board meeting Monday evening at 7PM. Info on the Zoom meeting is here.
The COVID 19 pandemic has wrecked havoc on the finances of our Town, our State, our country and – in fact- most countries around the world. But as the impact of state-mandated shut downs trickles down, Belmont is at risk of balancing an already strained budget on the backs of its most vulnerable: students in our public schools.
With in-district per pupil spending already $3,000 per student/per year below the State average per district ($12,700 in Belmont vs. $15,900), the public schools in our Town of Homes came into the pandemic stretched to the breaking point. Now, with expected cuts in aid from the State and reductions in commercial taxes locally, our elected and appointed leaders face tough choices. The danger: that the pandemic now risks plunging our already threadbare schools into a full blown economic crisis that will beget significant layoffs of instructional staff, a sharp increase in class size, and potentially curtailment of academic and program offerings.
Six, planned teaching positions on the chopping block
Already, the schools have been asked to find $1 million in savings to fill in for a 25% drop in Chapter 70 State aid. According to a back of the envelope plan presented by Superintendent Phelan, that would entail budget for six full time equivalent (FTE) teaching positions for Fiscal Year 2021 intended to address class overcrowding due to record-high public school enrollment: two for grade six and two for grade seven. Then, at the High School, a planned half time Social Studies teacher, a half time language instructor and a full time Science Teacher would be cut.
Also up: cuts to Textbooks, Custodial and Substitutes
But wait, that’s not all. The School Department has also outlined cuts to the budget for textbooks and supplies, curriculum materials, custodial services and the use of substitute teachers. Remember when we had a big influenza outbreak and our teachers were asking kids to donate boxes of Kleenex because the District couldn’t supply them? That was under the _old_ budget. These cuts would presumably be deeper.
And: new Demands including Health Services, Distance Learning
The budget cuts are only part of the problem. Our District will also be under pressure to provide expanded services as it brings students back. Among them: health services to the tune of two, new FTE nurses to serve the district. The (likely) reliance on distance learning to enable lower density learning or mitigate outbreaks and flare ups of COVID will see us bringing on two, full time technology integration specialists and we’re going to need more social workers to deal with the social and emotional needs of students.
In other words: even as our school budget is shrinking, the demands on our budget are growing.
Do Town Leaders get it?
Do our elected leaders get it? It’s not clear. I know that the members of our School Committee sure do. They’ve been imploring anyone who will listen on the Warrant Committee and Select Board to be sparing in cutting school funding, given the demands on our educators and students over the next two years. It’s a truism that you only get “once chance to do [fill in the grade].” Cuts we make to teaching staff and course offerings can’t be back filled later – those amount to permanent harm to our students and will drag down the high standards that we hold our schools to.
True, many families in Belmont have the means to privately replace lost courses, extra curricular activities and support staff. But many, many more do not. Cuts to school services hit those who most rely on those services the most.
It’s also true that cut services and funding often never find their way back into operational budgets. The result is a slow, steady, winnowing. When my oldest started at Winn Brook elementary back in 2005, the district had paid librarians in every elementary school library. Music education was free to all students (no fee) and began in third grade. Today, librarians are parent volunteers, music education starts in fourth* grade and is fee based. Good times have gone, and come and gone again – but those offerings were gone and stayed gone.
So my message is to not listen to those who comfort you that cuts can be restored when better times return. When that day hopefully comes, there will be other, unseen demands for revenue. The cuts we make this year will be permanent. Fight now, or be prepared to live with the consequences.
How can you fight? First of all by making your voice heard. Despite an active parent population, our elected and appointed leaders often work in a bubble: hardly hearing from anyone but the ‘usual suspects.’ Break their filter bubble and let them know that you expect School services to be preserved and cuts to teaching staff and materials to be avoided at all costs.
First step: write to the Select Board (email@example.com ), the Warrant Committee (firstname.lastname@example.org) and the School Committee (email@example.com)and make your feelings known. Hearing directly from residents is the best way to turn heads among the political insiders who set policy in Belmont.
Second: make your voice heard. The School Committee, Warrant Committee and Select Board are holding a joint meeting on Monday, May 18th. The information on joining that meeting via Zoom is at: https://www.belmont.k12.ma.us/bps/Portals/0/docs/minutes/2020/2020-05-18_select_board.pdf?ver=2020-05-15-115854-040.
See you there!
(*) Correction: an earlier version of this post misstated what year music education now starts. It has been updated.