WVN #331: Residents assail school budget proposal
- Dear Wayland Voter,
The proposed school budget for 2010-11 drew strong criticism at a public hearing.
Also in this newsletter: The School Committee has delayed acting on an order from the state Supreme Judicial Court.
RESIDENTS CRITICIZE PROPOSED SCHOOL BUDGET
The school superintendent's proposed budget came under fire from parents and others who claimed administration personnel were being retained at the expense of those in direct contact with students.
In previous years when no override was contemplated, School Committee budget hearings tended to be dull affairs. Very few citizens attended, and if any comments were made they were generally polite and low key, and usually concerned the effect of the budget on seniors with fixed incomes.
Not so this year. The hearing held on Jan. 4 was well-attended by a vocal cross-section of Wayland's population, from seniors to high school students, but most of the 50 to 60 attendees were school parents. Many comments were passionate and some were hostile.
Many attendees were upset with planned cuts. On the other hand many others were concerned with the effect of even the reduced budget on strapped taxpayers. And it was clear that retaining a 2009 salary is a luxury this year, as many working people struggle with salary cuts, job losses and asset losses.
The meeting began with Chairman Louis Jurist presenting Superintendent Gary Burton's proposed budget which asks for $30.387 million for 2010-11, a 2.1 percent net decrease from this year. The School Committee will review and possibly change the budget before presenting the final version to the Finance Committee. See
Then the critiques began. The most common theme from those who had done their homework was that the proposed budget made bad choices in reducing teachers while maintaining spending in less critical areas such as administration.
Shawn Kinney, a resident and school parent who has been featured in the Town Crier as the founder and head of a local manufacturing company, presented an analysis of the teacher to non-teacher ratios in the Wayland schools versus a number of other towns with equivalent or better MCAS scores. See
He concluded that Wayland was overweighted in non-teaching staff, and that changing the ratio would cut costs and actually improve educational quality. The Committee responded that there were "many misconceptions" in his presentation.
Another school parent continued the theme. Many schools have long focused on student-to-teacher ratios and how this relates to class sizes, she said. But 44 of 45 proposed cuts will be made to direct-to-student services including teachers, teaching assistants, guidance counselors, versus one cut (in hours only) to an administrative position.
"Where are our priorities to the students?", she asked.
One parent asked the superintendent if he could cut one of his three secretaries to save the job of a teacher. He responded that he needed all three secretaries because each specializes in an area of expertise. This brought comments from another parent who said that in these economic times there are no longer any specialists; those still employed are "generalists", expected to do the work of colleagues who were laid off. Another parent hearing of Burton's three secretaries exclaimed, "That's an outrage."
Cross-training was one of the promoted cost-saving features of the new Wayland Department of Public Works.
Many high school students came to the meeting to protest a reduction in hours for the art teacher. A former Wayland High School student, now attending Carnegie Mellon University, spoke about how the art teacher mentored his career path and wrote 45 letters of recommendation for student college applications over the holidays. Others spoke of the loss of a secretary in guidance who has helped them tremendously with their college applications. Another student argued that they didn't need a language lab now that the language department has iPods. Furthermore, he said, money spent on new computers was wasted because teachers weren't trained to use them, and the money could have gone toward a teaching position.
The administrators replied that cuts are painful and they hoped the students understood this.
Another parent pointed out that due to redistricting in Wayland -- a consolidation in elementary schools from 3 to 2 -- one elementary school with an increased enrollment of 609 students is still budgeted for $177,000 in administrative costs. In comparison, the Middle School, with an enrollment of 639 students, is budgeted for $463,000 in administrative costs. She asked why it takes an additional $286,000 in administrative costs (more than the entire budget for administrative costs at Claypit Hill) for one school to serve only 30 more students than the other school. The superintendent has already announced that class sizes will increase because of cuts he is proposing to the teaching staff at the Middle School, and no cuts will be made to the administration, she said.
Other examples were cited of administrative jobs being maintained in the school budget while teachers and teaching assistants will be cut.
Another parent suggested that an outside consultant be brought in to do the same sort of independent audit analysis for the whole school budget as was done for technology, which she said is moving forward beautifully.
Former Selectman Alan Reiss described his company's situation, where 1850 people were reduced to 600, all of whom were forced to take eight to ten percent salary cuts. He was happy to take the cut to prevent even more job eliminations, he said, and he suggested that teachers should be willing to take salary cuts just like the taxpayers paying their salaries. The teachers' three-year union contract ends this year and negotiations for a new contract will start shortly.
Another attendee continued the theme, directly challenging teachers and administrators to take salary cuts and roll back benefits. Superintendent Burton responded that he had already put zero increases in the budget for himself and all other administrators. Pushed further to respond to the question of whether he would take an actual cut, he said "I'm not prepared to respond to that tonight." When Teachers' Union head Conrad Gees was similarly pressed, he said he knew he might have to accept a zero percent increase this year, and maybe for two years. But the teachers have taken a vote to keep an actual pay cut off the table.
A high school student who is one of the leaders of WSPN (Wayland Student Press Network), the online news medium of Wayland High School , which has won national awards while operating on a shoestring, ended the hearing when he issued a plea to widespread acclaim. "Be creative!", he said.
Video of the hearing can be seen at
Technology to cope with tight budgets?
After the budget hearing the School Committee questioned Technology Director Leisha Simon regarding her request for $750,000 to complete the networking infrastructure and buy laptops for teachers and ninth graders as part of the plan to equip all high school students over four years with their own machines.
Many regard the increased use of technology as key to maintaining or improving educational quality while coping with ever-tightening budgets. But clearly hopeful Committee members seemed to have trouble understanding Simon's vision of the 21st century classroom. "Are we moving too quickly?" asked member Barb Fletcher.
Simon presented a vision of an educational environment where the teacher is no longer the "sage on a stage" but becomes a "guide on the side". Rather than the teacher being the fount of all knowledge and lecturing to a class, project-based learning would be the norm. Students would usually work collaboratively on projects and learn "on the job", much as adults now research and learn in the modern work environment. The teacher would give general guidance and help students find and evaluate online resources. The focus would change from "teaching" to "learning".
School Committee members asked for examples where other schools had already led the way. Assistant Superintendent Brad Crozier indicated that while Wayland would not be the first pioneer, it would be ahead of the crowd.
The Committee put off making final recommendations until next week, when its liaison to the Technology Task Force, member Jeff Dieffenbach, would be back from business travel.
ACTION DEFERRED ON SUPREME COURT ORDER
The Wayland School Committee put off until Jan. 11 any action on the state Supreme Judicial Court's demand that it disclose two emails declared in violation of the Open Meeting Law.
The reason given at the Committee's Jan. 4 meeting was that member Jeff Dieffenbach was away on business. Dieffenbach, the only current member who was on the committee when the 2004 violation occurred, was chairman at the time and a strong supporter of the resulting litigation. Total taxpayer cost is unknown.
The current chairman, Louis Jurist, has said he believes the emails should be disclosed.
The court's Dec. 31 decision was clear and comprehensive in finding that the Committee had violated the Open Meeting Law by exchanging private emails and conducting the school superintendent's performance evaluation in closed session. In the course of litigation, other information was released, but not emails sent to Dieffenbach by then-members Heather Pineault and Lori Frieling.
The court wrote: "The district attorney argues that, at this point in time, release of the written e-mail correspondence is the only way to "cure" the improper deliberations held by the school committee and the improper executive sessions held by the school committee. We agree with the district attorney that, in order to cure the violation, the school committee must release the written comments of the individual school board members."
For background see
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor