Friday, May 24, 2002
Carlisle School faces cuts, fees after failure of tax override
The Carlisle School Committee (CSC) met Saturday morning, May 18, to confront the reality of the school budget cuts resulting from the failure of the 5.9% budget override at the town election last week. Accepting that the town has spoken, the school will now have to deal with the levy limit budget which provides an increase of approximately 2% over last year's budget. The bulk of the somber three-hour meeting was spent discussing cuts in school programs and the implementation of unpopular user fees for non-mandated programs, including full-day kindergarten and bus service for seventh- and eighth-graders.
At a second meeting on Tuesday, May 21, the committee voted on the user fees, setting a fee of $350 per child for two afternoons of kindergarten and $365 for bus transportation for seventh- and eighth-graders.
No easy decisions
Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson quietly said, "I've been thinking of how to even begin this discussion." Before starting, she told a story. "Two little fourth-grade girls made an appointment to say that they had a plan to have a carnival to earn some money to keep the library open. You have wonderful children." But she then went on to say, "We have to be careful not to focus too narrowly. We have met with the staff. These are decisions one can't make collaboratively. Decisions have to be made. No decision is good. The voters have spoken and we have to comply. We will have to make do with less. We have already made the easy cuts. No one cares if we don't replace furniture for a year, but some of these other things do matter."
Fees for full-day kindergarten
Approximately 80 children are enrolled for next year and a majority of parents has indicated that they would be willing to pay for the two full days. This was true, according to committee member Paul Morrison, when the program was instituted three years ago. Questioned by new committee member Michael Fitzgerald, Fox-Melanson said that anyone who is eligible for free or reduced fees for the lunch program will be eligible to have this cost waived.
Pam Schad of Timothy Lane said that a $90 fee when it was a pilot half-year program was a wonderful bargain. Andi Gettys of Cross Street felt that the fee would not be a surprise, and the reception by incoming kindergarten parents would be positive.
The number of students becomes important when one needs to align classrooms and bus schedules. Sean Flynn of Woodbine Road felt that $350 was a small amount to pay when many parents are paying more for preschool. Flynn encouraged the school to cover costs enough to ensure that the school could go forward with the program.
Patricia Simon of Old North Road noted that $350 for 80 students would bring approximately $28,000 to fund the difference in the salaries of the four teachers to include two full days of kindergarten. Larry Bearfield of North Road asked whether the fees would cover the use of the physical plant, supplies, heat or custodial support. "Good question," responded Fox-Melanson. Morrison pointed out that it is difficult to calculate these costs; "It is an accounting nightmare and easily challenged."
Selectman John Ballantine commented that there are going to be more user fees in town. "Taxpayers are going to see more fees and we need to be aware of a rational approach to fees. There are programs that taxpayers support and are free, some programs that are supported by user fees, and some programs just cannot be offered." Fox-Melanson responded, " I don't like running public schools this way." Fitzgerald commented, "Basically we're talking about what is provided for within the tax base and what is not."
Bus fees for grades 7 and 8
Fox-Melanson next discussed bus fees for seventh- and eighth-grade students, which are not required by law. She recommended a fee of $365. This amount is based on a student population of 203 or 24% of the student population. The direct cost to the school according to Carlisle School business manager Eileen Riley is $73,500. This directly affects bus routes and the number of buses necessary to get the children to school. These need to be figured out before summer.
CSC member Morrison commented that several years ago this action led to hard feelings and not much revenue for the town. "I feel the town should provide this service for safety issues." CSC member Dockterman said, "There are no safe ways to walk to school. I am reluctant not to provide this service, but we have to look at what we can charge fees for. Most other services are mandated." Fitzgerald pointed out that we are legally obligated to provide an education for the students of grades 7 and 8, but not the bus service to school.
Parent Sean Flynn warned the school that there could be a shortfall in bus fees. Dockterman wondered whether incorporating a range of fees depending on the number of participants would minimize the shortfall for the school. If only 75% of the seventh and eighth graders participated in the bus service the cost would be nearer to $483 per student.
One class section to be cut
The superintendent next listed the need to cut a class. She originally proposed eliminating a second-grade class. However, she said, "The numbers of students are coming in higher than anticipated. Although we planned to reduce the second-grade class from five to four sections, we now see we will have over 102 students enrolled. Twenty-six or 27 students is too many for a second-grade class." Dockterman agreed, saying that there will be children on the margins who are most affected by the larger class size. "The costs may rise because we have more who qualify for special education programs." Where to eliminate a class section is still to be determined.
Cuts and reductions to music, staff and technology
Other programs proposed to be cut include the fifth-grade language program, the technology support program, the teacher mentor program, the team leaders and curriculum coordinators, the four middle school teaching assistants, student choruses, the additional reading specialist, permanent substitutes, the elementary school health position, and co-curricular activities such as yearbook, student council, and math league. Programs to be reduced are those of the technology integration specialist, the general music program, the school library, and custodial staff.
"The middle school chorus program taught by Katherine Pringle will be a huge loss," said CSC chair Suzanne Whitney Smith. She felt it would be important to investigate the possibility of running this program in the afternoons with fees.
The technology program received the next hit. Whitney Smith said, "Sadly we are already below state recommendations considering technology for a school." School business manager Eileen Riley elaborated that if the school went with an "Applecare Program," we could have one computer per classroom. "However," she said, "we need to have a knowledgeable person with the equipment. It does not help to have a great deal of added equipment without the teachers and staff knowledgeable enough to use it."
Plans for Special Town Meeting and vote in June
Selectman John Ballantine said that at the end of June there will be a Special Town Meeting and another town election to resolve the discrepancy between Concord's and Carlisle's budgets for the high school. The selectmen are also considering a new Warrant article requesting additional funds for town departments, most of which will be held to their FY02 budgets.
The CSC considered the possibility of having some of its budgetary needs resolved if the school were included in this additional special vote in June or if more money should became available. Dockterman expressed the opinion that funding for the CCHS and town employees should be the priority.
Fitzgerald countered, "Significant cuts are being made in Carlisle programs, the library and the technology, that will have long-term effects in the community and are critical for the kids. It would only take a small amount to restore some services. If we have one more chance, should we try?" The CSC's collective answer to his question was "No."
'Lightning rod for town's dissatisfaction'
Morrison agreed that some of the things cut were vital. "However," he said, "I interpret, by the failure of the override vote, that the town said the school can cut back. We seem to be the lightning rod for the town's dissatisfaction. We need to hear that and reestablish trust in the town. I also feel the additional request of money for Carlisle Public School would distract from the resolution of the CCHS budget." Dockterman agreed and said, "The town maybe felt we were being alarmist. There is now a cost to the failure of the override vote. The cost is to the kids who will now be in larger classrooms and some will now qualify for the more costly special education (SPED) programs."
The CSC agreed that the Special Town Meeting will offer the opportunity to transfer $18,510, originally designated for technology acquisition, approved by Town Meeting in article 7, to the school's operating budget. It makes no sense to have the equipment without the staff to run it.
Andi Gettys commented that the override question did not make clear there would be cuts in the fire and police departments. "People really didn't understand and you don't want to send the message that the town really doesn't need the extra money." Muggsie Rocco supported the needs for the CCHS and said, "I want to avoid a joint meeting with Concord and the backlash that could jeopardize the money for the high school."
"The town is polarized and I wouldn't want to give fuel to continue the polarization," summarized Sean Flynn.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito