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Jim Oldham: School budget cuts are unbalanced

I want to add my voice to the many others concerned about damaging cuts in the proposed elementary and regional schools budgets. I strongly urge the superintendent, or the respective school committees, to amend the budgets prior to votes scheduled Feb. 26 for the elementary schools and March 12 for the regional schools.

The letter in last week’s Bulletin, signed by over 230 parents, guardians and community members, laid out the problem for the elementary schools clearly: the proposed cuts are heavily concentrated on teachers, guidance counselors and paraprofessionals — and are not balanced with cuts to central office administration.

In fact, a review of the proposed budget shows that spending on central administration is slated to grow by 31 percent (from $480,272 to $628,565) even as spending on art, music and physical education teachers is being cut.

There is a similar situation at the regional level, where payroll for regular education is being reduced by $500,000, with the loss of almost five full-time positions at the high school and elimination of technology as an elective and cuts to physical education at the middle school.

Meanwhile, spending on central office payroll will actually rise by $57,000, almost 10 percent above the current year. The regional budget shows growth in the administrative budget of 49 percent over 10 years as compared to a 7.5 percent increase in the regular education budget in the same period.

To criticize these budgets is not to say that there should be no review of how teachers are deployed, nor is it to devalue the work done by administrators. Certain cuts to teaching programs may be legitimate. I’m not personally familiar with the elementary schools’ foreign language program, but what I’ve read suggests that it was never given the resources or time required to be effective, so perhaps ending it is best.

Investing resources in a “Steps to Success” family support program, with the goal of helping to close the achievement gap among students in our schools, may be appropriate, but making this investment at the expense of critical in-school programs seems counter-productive. As Kathleen Traphagen pointed out in her column last week, strong programs in art, music, and physical education provide important opportunities for engaging all families and building student skills and confidence. And successful programs in these areas cannot be built by part-time teachers who spend their limited time traveling between schools rather than developing lessons and cross-disciplinary collaborations.

The school committees need to listen to the concerns being raised and ask the superintendent to redistribute cuts. Traphagen’s thoughtful recommendations for how to restore $65,000 to art, music and physical education in the elementary school budget are one good starting point, though I would go further to limit other cuts to frontline staff. Similar rethinking needs to take place on the regional budget.

The school committees also need to ask other tough questions.

Elementary enrollment has fallen more than 20 percent in the past decade, and one school has been closed. Enrollment in the middle and high schools is down more than 25 percent in the same period. Yet administration costs grow. It is time to ask whether we really need the large central office staff we have. Space constraints prevent listing the many directors with six figure salaries, and the size of the departments they head, but I’d like to pose two questions for the school committees. Are the size and cost of each department — human resources, finance, information systems, etc. — appropriate to the size of the school system they are running? Are we overinvesting in directors, evaluators, coordinators and coaches relative to our investment in the professional staff who actually engage with students?

Jim Oldham is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.

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