The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 19, 2003


Superintendent presents her FY05 budgets and priorities

Davida Fox-Melanson, Superinten-dent of the Carlisle Public Schools (CPS), visited the Carlisle Finance Committee on December 10 to present her priorities for the next school year. Although a fiscal 2005 (FY05) guideline for the school budget has not been finalized, Fox-Melanson has been told to expect almost no increase over the current year, FY04. Her overview revealed the school's thinking as to what budget levels might be sustainable, while avoiding discussion of the cuts that might be necessary under a no-override budget. "The last thing I want to do is spend my final days dismantling the school system of which I'm very proud," said Fox-Melanson. "If it comes to that, I won't go quietly." She retires at the end of this school year.

Two budgets proposed

Fox Melanson explained the school will be drawing up two budgets. The first, called the "No Child Left Behind (NCLB)" budget, would cover new mandates recently enacted by the federal government. The second higher budget would cover those mandates and also restore some services and programs lost in previous budget years.

Neither budget would adhere to the preliminary levy-limit guideline issued by the FinCom in October which would require cuts in personnel and programs. Perhaps remembering the budget year in which the school announced potential cuts only to be told at the last minute they would not be necessary (due to higher than expected real estate growth), Fox-Melanson said, "To talk in December about the impact on programs and personnel is too painful. It may come to that, but let's wait to get into a prolonged discussion."

NCLB increases school mandates

According to Fox-Melanson, the school will incur significant new costs as a result of the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, and the first proposed budget would cover those costs and little additional. It assumes no significant increase in enrollment or special education (SPED) and that existing fees will be maintained and increased according to costs. It also assumes programs funded outside the budget this year (for example, by the Carlisle Education Foundation or the Carlisle School Association will continue to be funded outside, or will be dropped.

To satisfy the new laws, a part-time position must be added to collect the 48,000 data elements to be reported to the Department of Education (DOE) three to four times per year. In addition, school aides, even those providing assistance in a classroom with a qualified teacher, are required to be "highly qualified." Fox-Melanson insists existing aides "are highly qualified for what they do," but many will have to be replaced by more expensive college graduates to satisfy the NCLB mandates.

Can services be restored?

The second proposed budget would include the elements of the first, with the additions of several services cut in the FY03 and FY04 budgets. Those include a reading specialist, curriculum co-ordinators, stipends to restore activities and intramural sports, and funding of extraordinary maintenance. It would not include other high-priority items such as display cabinets conformant with new fire codes (which outlaw hanging student papers on walls), elementary health, elementary foreign language, a techno-logy instructor, a math specialist, and replacement of musical instruments.

Fox-Melanson also noted needs that appear to have no immediate hope of funding, including drama and speech programs, a string instrument program, teacher professional development, after-school activities, particularly those for elementary students, staffing for the dining room and playground, and additional campus space.

Contract gives breathing room

Fox-Melanson complimented the teachers for arriving at a contract that is "fair, but that respects professional accomplishments." It provides a 2.5% salary increase for the next two years, including steps (increases for years on the job) and cost-of-living increases, and restores funds for teacher development. Currently there are 75 teachers in a staff of 160, numbers that are expected to be stable.

In response to a question, Fox-Melanson explained CPS teachers do not typically receive reductions in teaching hours for performing administrative functions. A student-teacher ratio is not specified by the contract, although "the school is committed to keeping class size below twenty in the lower grades." She added, "We believe large class size is a false economy because it increases SPED referrals."

FinCom member Ray Wilkes said he would rather see a program cut than poorly implemented. Fox-Melanson agreed, pointing to programs, such as elementary foreign language, the school has eliminated. "We'd rather do a few things very well. If a program is under-funded, it's dropped completely." Asked about top priorities, Fox-Melanson listed a focus on basic skills and on producing well-rounded students who can change and adapt as required.

Fees undermine extra-curriculars

Wilkes pointed to the value of learning teamw ork in "quality athletic programs," calling current athletic programs at CPS "a total failure." Melanson noted that since athletics became completely fee-based in the early nineties, participation has eroded. "Currently there's not a dollar in the budget for co-curricular activities," she said, noting that even Math League which is an extention of the curriculum is funded by a CEF grant. She added, "We have the highest fees in the state" at $175 per child per sport. With middle school extra-curricular participation hovering at 30%, "we want to get all students involved, but that just hasn't happened."

From the audience, parent Maureen Tarca said, "The public needs to know parents have responded," but pointed to her own two children for whom she pays $1,500 in fees this year. "A lot of people can't pay that. We're tapping people out." Fox-Melanson said she hears that message from parents constantly. "Enough already! Parents are very supportive," she says. It reaches a point where "they're not unwilling, but unable." Steve Moore, CPS business manager, said the average fee per family is around $1,200.

School Committee member Nicole Burkel pointed to the high participation in extra-curricular activities at the high school, and noted that these activities provide motivation and connection at a time when students can get disaffected. "In Carlisle if you don't participate in the music program, you must find activities outside," disrupting that school connection.

The current plan is to keep, and in some cases, increase parent fees to cover rising costs. These include paying for seventh- and eighth-grade school buses and afternoon kindergarten, as well as student activities. Wilkes wondered if a creative way could be found to raise funds in other ways, such as asking townspeople to donate part of their federal tax rebates. Noting that the economy is picking up, he expects "people will be freer with their money in the coming year."

Asked for priorities to pass on to the new superintendent, Fox-Melanson listed:

1. managing the tight budget;

2. providing more space;

3. maintaining excellence;

4. integrating a new team of teachers as retirements bring a large number of new teachers on board.

The challenge to the school com-mittee is to find a new superintendent who can balance these competing goals.

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito