The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 29, 2009

CCHS plans layoffs as state funding drops

The Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (RSC) met Tuesday night to consider an emergency response to expected shortfalls in FY10 state funding for the Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS). These shortfalls could leave a budget gap of as much as $678,000, and were not anticipated at the time the CCHS budget was passed in Concord and Carlisle Town Meetings in April and May. After two hours of discussion, with appeals from a spill-over audience that included about two dozen teachers, a plan was approved which would reduce teacher staffing by 4.75 Full-Time Equivilants (FTEs). In addition, athletic and parking fees will likely rise, and a yearly activity fee may be assessed for each participating student.

Deputy Superintendent of Finance and Operations John Flaherty noted that although the Massachusetts budget is unlikely to be approved before July, with each proposed iteration, funding for school programs has dropped as state revenues have gone into freefall. The early Governor’s budget had cut $65,348 in CCHS’s regional transportation support, an amount the school had anticipated covering with reserve funds set aside for emergencies.

The more recent Ways and Means Committee proposal carries a high probability of a second cut of $201,349 to the high school’s transportation, Chapter 70 and charter tuition funds. To further the bad news, the bill proposes a lowering of the reimbursement rate for special education circuit breaker funds from 72% to 50 or 55%, a $350,000 hit for CCHS. However, the latest Senate version would reduce the funding rate to 30%. All told, and including $100,000 in additional unemployment compensation for anticipated layoffs, if the current Ways and Means proposal is approved, CCHS will have to find $536,349 more. The latest Senate version would require an additional $678,300.

Opportunities for optimism on the state budget were few. Louis Salemy noted that “The state consistently overestimates revenues” and “There’s a probability that the problem keeps growing.” Flaherty agreed, saying “It does seem likely the situation hasn’t bottomed out yet” and observed that the public sector lags private sector recovery. “It will be a while before revenue is enhanced. We’re in for a tough ride. FY10 will be difficult, and FY11 could be worse.”

Flaherty pointed to a list of proposed reductions that could allow the high school to cut over $600,000 from next year’s budget. The largest item would be a reduction of 4.75 full time teachers to save the school $275,000. Reducing the athletic budget by 30% and co-curricular stipends by 10% would save $135,000. Cuts in clerical and central office administration would add another $71,000. Supplies, which had been cut in half during the FY08 and FY09 years, could be cut once again, library textbooks could be reduced and professional development halved, saving $62,000. Reductions of $68,000 had already been achieved through other measures.

Fees to rise

Principal Peter Badalament noted that a 30% cut in the athletic budget would require eliminating freshman sports and probably some JV as well. Athletic Director Barry Haley agreed. Earlier, he had expressed support for an increase in fees to support the program, and discussion soon turned to that option. CCHS athletic fees, at $125 per sport, are among the lowest in comparison with other districts, and raising that number to $200 would help fill the gap and allow retention of freshman athletics.

Although the $75 increase seemed reasonable, there was controversy regarding the cap which now limits a family to $500 in athletic fees per year for all their CCHS students. Some RSC members were concerned that participation rates could drop if the cap were raised. But Haley noted that 50 to 75 families are at the cap now, and that the benefits of a fee increase could be lost if the cap is too low.

RSC member Dale Ryder wondered if a higher-than-$200 athletic fee might be justified, but Pamela Gannon of the RSC noted, “A family would think twice” about paying $250 to $300 for a casual after-school program. Jerry Wedge suggested a fee schedule which differentiated between expensive and less costly sports, “Running is cheaper than buying ice time.”

Balalament noted the $75 fee increase would allow freshman sports to remain, with some cuts in non-league play and uniform purchases. Another $14,000 to $15,000 could be raised by requiring a $20 fee per year from each student taking part in school activities. Parking, which currently costs $125 per year, could be doubled to raise about $40,000. It was noted that imposing bus fees is not possible because the school would forfeit state transportation funding.

RSC member Jan McGinn, expressing the general mood of the RSC, “In a perfect world I wouldn’t go for increasing fees, but the alternative is elimination.” The RSC asked for additional research, particularly on the impact of the family cap on athletic fees, and directed the CCHS administration to structure a fee recommendation that would generate an additional $135,000. This will allow the school to retain athletics and co-curricular activities. Peter Fischelis of the RSC suggested a time limit after which the rise in fees would be revisited, perhaps in 2012.

Cuts also necessary

Turning to the proposed cuts, the committee quickly agreed to the non-staff reductions in supplies, textbooks, and professional development. Even Library Director Robin Cicchetti, asked to comment on the loss of library funds, said, “Given there are teacher positions (in danger) I think this is an appropriate cut.” Staff cuts would start with clerical and central staffing. These positions are shared by the region, which includes Concord Public Schools, so the high school would be assigned 40% of the savings, or $61,000.

Rigby explained that the proposal to cut 4.75 teachers would change the average student load from 85.2 students per teacher to 90.6. Badalament said class sizes would rise from an average of 22 students to 23. A few upper level classes might be affected, including science classes that must be limited in class size, for which there will now be no second section.

McGinn noted the 90.6 students per teacher does not approach the contract limit of 95. “We could cut deeper.” Salemy made a case for more cuts, saying the state is likely to reduce even further, perhaps as late as October. “What happens at that point?” he asked. Rigby responded, “We wouldn’t start the year and lay off teachers with students in classes” and suggested the state could not put the schools in that position. But Wedge said that he had had a recent conversation with State Representative Cory Atkins in which she had told him the schools should be prepared for just that eventuality.

Said Salemy, “I hate to see us do this in a stair step approach.” But Badalament countered, “I want to preserve programs and personnel as best we can.” He said going to the full 95 student-to-teacher ratio “would decimate some programs. I wouldn’t want to go there today.”

Fischelis pointed to roughly $500,000 in salary increases next year under the current teacher’s contract, and suggested some renegotiation, “Ask the teachers to look at this and help us get through these tough times.” Superintendent Diana Rigby responded, “Every stakeholder is going to have to contribute to closing the gap,” including parents, teachers and administration. Wedge suggested partnering with other schools, and Rigby pointed to collaboration with Concord and Middlesex Academies. Badalament noted a recent investment in virtual high school software to allow students to take courses on-line.

A Concord resident and English teacher spoke from the audience, “It’s not reasonable to expect teachers to pay at both ends.” She noted the expectation that teaching brings “no lush bonuses in the good times” and said the 3% raise “is chump change, but an enormous amount to us.” She expressed disappointment there had been no discussion of revisiting the budget for an override. Andy Sapp of the CCHS English Department said that at class sizes over 24 or 25 students, “the entire dynamic changes. You just can’t have discussion.” He added, “You’re talking about quality of education.” Several parents arose to voice support for retaining freshman sports and student activities, even through higher fees.

Wedge voiced his opinion that “We can’t ask for an override until we’ve made all the cuts we can possibly make.” He said the financial situation will likely get worse as time goes on and he would rather wait and “make a compelling case for an override in FY11.” Flaherty observed that a reduced budget will have to be prepared even if additional funding is pursued in case the hurdles of asking two Board of Selectmen’s to call Special Town Meetings and asking voters of two towns to pass budget increases prove insurmountable. Rigby noted that the first question the Selectmen would ask is about staffing ratios, and the current 85 to 1 would not be acceptable.

Fischelis pointed to numbers of town residents out of work. “I worry about going to the well (now) when we’re going to have to next year. There are only so many bullets in that gun.” He suggested an FY10 budget increase would be “very unlikely in Carlisle,” and Wedge nodded in agreement. Flaherty underlined that point by noting Carlisle residents are already expecting a large bill for the high school as a result of a bubble in the Carlisle student population starting next year which will change the assessment ratio. Ryder expressed concern with the proposed cuts, but pressed for an alternative, shrugged powerlessly.

The RSC voted unanimously to support the proposal for budget cuts to bring the staffing ratio to 91 students per teacher. This change will realize a $609,000 reduction, leaving about $70,000 to be determined. Said Flaherty, “There are lots of other pieces” and a final state budget is “a huge moving target.” Salemy suggested making a contingency plan for further cuts. “Prioritize programs and make a mental cut list,” he counseled. ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito