Friday, January 17, 2003
Parents concerned about Carlisle School budget
A standing-room only crowd of engaged parents and community members gathered at the Carlisle School on Wednesday morning, January 8, for a Carlisle School Association-sponsored overview of the 2004 school budget. Of particular interest was the impact on programs if the school receives only the 2.62% increase recommended by the town's finance committee (FinCom). New school business manager Steven Moore presented the overview with Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson fielding questions.
Moore began by noting the school committee had the night before (see school committee article) approved the FinCom guideline budget and is recommending $105,000 additional to restore some programs. The school administration had presented three budget levels: the 2.62% as well as budgets representing 4.25% and 7.65% increases.
Impact on programs
At the 2.62% level, fees would still be necessary to continue the full-day kindergarten and bus service for seventh- and eighth-grade students. There would be no teaching assistant for the over-sized eighth-grade class, and no permanent substitute. In addition, programs and services lost this year, such as elementary foreign language, elementary health, the teacher mentor program, a reading specialist, a SPED teacher, and an extra section for an over-sized second grade would not be restored. However, the full-time librarian, choral music teacher, and student activities, which were not part of the budget this year (but were restored through one-time CEF and CSA grants), could be included in the budget.
The school committee is recommending that a grade 2 section and an elementary SPED teacher be restored. It has suggested that co-curricular activities (yearbook, student council, and math league) be taken out of the budget and either eliminated or supported by fees.
Moore noted the programmatic impact of the school committee-approved budget is quite uncertain since teacher and bus contracts have not yet been negotiated. While a 2.1% increase was assumed for the bus contract, the teachers contract was included "as is." Any increase in either of these contracts above what was planned would result in additional program cuts.
Fees do not cover costs
A parent question elicited the information that 80% of seventh- and eighth-grade students are currently paying to ride the bus. However, Fox-Melanson noted, "The bus fees next year (now $365 per student) will have to rise" as they are not covering costs. She said the full-day kindergarten also didn't cover its costs this year as a high percentage (40%) of parents elected not to participate.
Parent Caren Ponty of East Street pointed out that several buses come by her house and questioned whether re-mapping routes might reduce the contract. Fox-Melanson replied that other towns negotiate on a per-student, not a per-mile basis, and Carlisle has asked the bus company to switch to this method.
State cuts back SPED funds
In response to a question about the impact of potential cutbacks in state funds, Fox-Melanson noted, "The trend is to shift the burden to the local districts." For example, the school has been notified the state won't pay its share of the cost of residential outplacement for SPED students from April 1 through June 30. Carlisle has only one student outplaced, and the lost revenue will be $15,000, assuming the state doesn't extend the "non-payment" period. "There's no way legally or morally we can not pay [to make up for cut state funds]," said Fox-Melanson. "It's very concerning because it's a harbinger of things to come." Larry Bearfield of the Carlisle Citizens for Limited Taxation suggested parents, as well as school and town government officials, should "lobby the hill" on this issue.
SPED continues to rise
A question arose as to whether SPED parents could be charged fees for cost increases in that area. Fox-Melanson noted only non-mandated programs can be fee-based, and the law says SPED students "are entitled to free and appropriate education." A parent who identified herself as the mother of a student with special needs said that "parents of a child in special education spend quite a bit out-of-pocket to support their child in a mainstream program" and fees would only add to the already heavy burden.
Fox-Melanson elaborated on the school's SPED philosophy, noting, "We try to meet the child's needs in the most cost-effective way," and pointed to on-campus programs such as the pre-school as the primary vehicles for controlling costs, since they reduce expensive outplacements. Noting that some community members think the school should be tougher about refusing services, Fox-Melanson pointed to "a whole host of legal ramifications" and noted, "I don't think it's cost-effective [to fight parents in court] and in a small town I don't think it's where we want to go." She pointed to a SPED lawsuit against the town many years ago and said, "It was divisive and expensive," and noted the current philosophy is "to do what is adequate."
Cutting subs impacts education
A question about the role of permanent substitutes indicated one way in which cuts are affecting education. The school saves $5 per day by hiring a temporary substitute as needed rather than have a substitute on-staff. However, the temp does not have the training, certification, knowledge of the school, or knowledge of the children a permanent sub has. Fox-Melanson pointed to extended leaves as now particularly problematic. "We used to have a certified teacher we could put in the classroom [at no additional cost]." Four permanent substitutes were cut out of the budget this year and the approved 2004 budget would not bring them back.
Teacher and bus contracts affect programs
Parent Joan Konuk wondered about the potential impact of the teacher and bus contracts. Fox-Melanson noted that for every 1% increase in the teacher contract, $42,000 would have to be taken out of programs, and for every 1% increase in the bus contract, over the 2.1% already assumed, $30,000 would be needed. Said Bearfield, "We can assume the teachers contract won't go down. If the teachers get more money, it will directly impact the kids." Responded Fox Melanson, "Every increase in the contract will have to come from somewhere else."
Bearfield then suggested the school consider a professional negotiator as the high school has done. Fox-Melanson said in her experience, "when you bring in a professional it gets more costly and acrimonious." She pointed to the "good working relationship" between the administration and teachers as valuable in coming to an agreement. Moore added a professional negotiator is "useful for negotiating language, not salary." In response to a question, Fox-Melanson noted the difficulty of comparing Carlisle's salaries with other districts, given the very small number that are only K-8, but said "Carlisle falls in the top ten; not the top, but not low."
Parent Christy Barbee questioned whether the administration had considered a four-day school week as a way to cut costs. Fox-Melanson said she would be interested in the results if there were another Massachusetts district that experimented with it. As state law requires a minimum number of days of school, it may not be a viable approach.
Private funds undependable
Deb Dawson of the CSA cautioned that the "money pumped into the budget this year" by private organizations such as the CEF and CSA "may not be there" in the future. Noting the poor economy and the extraordinary effort required to raise substantial funds year after year, Dawson said, "We can't continue to depend on private funds." Barbee pointed to the danger that programs funded privately don't get into the budget. "Then we have a big gap to fill to come back up to speed," she said.
Fox-Melanson emphasized the importance of parent input as the budget process proceeds and requested that parents stay involved. Bearfield congratulated the school administration on their "effort to stick to the FinCom guideline and respond to the situation we're all in."
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito