South Hadley Public Schools brace for staff layoffs

  • South Hadley Schools Superintendent Nicholas Young. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/26/2019 5:53:17 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — South Hadley Public Schools are likely to see staff layoffs due to a lack of necessary funding for fiscal year 2020, according to school and town officials.

At a March 19 public hearing, the School Committee voted to request a budget of $21.5 million for fiscal year 2020, representing a 1.29 percent increase of $275,000 from the town. But this increase is not enough to maintain current services at the school, according to Superintendent Nicholas Young, and the district has run out of options within its financial constraints. 

“I really would rather be anywhere tonight than sitting here talking about these cuts,” Young said in a South Hadley Community Television recording of the meeting. “But the fact remains we’ve gone through every dollar that is available.”

Young told the Gazette via email that the School Committee is currently “working through a process to determine staff cuts,” but that “final list has not yet been determined.”

“It is fair to say that we have a substantial budget shortfall and are exploring ways to close this gap that will necessitate cuts,” he added. 

Prior to the public hearing, Town Administrator Mike Sullivan said that the town can offer $275,000 to the school budget, but added that there are “very salient arguments” that between $900,000 and $1.2 million in funding “wouldn’t be an overstep of what’s needed to operate the schools.”

“Unfortunately, as it’s presented, the town doesn’t have those resources readily and something that is sustainable,” Sullivan said. 

Young agreed that the town “has done everything it can do,” but said that most school districts need a 4 or 5 percent increase in order to maintain level services.

While the committee does not want to see a single position eliminated, Young said, he hopes that any cuts the district decides to implement in the coming months will mitigate mid-year layoffs during the next academic year. 

The school district is contractually required to issue layoffs by June 15 at the latest, although Young said the committee aims to provide longer notice to any employees affected. 

Rising expenses, retaining staff

School Committee members Kyle Belanger and Allison Schlachter suggested exploring options such as cutting back on textbook spending or eliminating “stale” programs that the schools have outgrown in hopes of reducing staff cuts. A South Hadley High School student in attendance also spoke on behalf of retaining as many staff members as possible.

“My preference would be, as opposed to a lack of personnel and the adequate supplies, I would rather have the adequate personnel and the lack of supplies,” the student said to applause.

But the district is “down to bare bones,” according to Young, and already did “drastically reduce all of those resources.” 

A significant strain on the school system’s finances has come through the special education program, Young said; since the 2013-2014 school year, the number of students enrolled in special education programming had risen from 282 to 372. In order to comply with Individualized Education Program (IEP) requirements, the district was required to add 17 special education positions. 

The district “ethically and morally” needs to meet these student needs, Young said, but the issue is substantially raising costs.

Audience member Scott Beaulieu, president of the South Hadley Education Association, said that the district “should not be in this predicament,” adding that some students are in the special education program due to declining remediation services from the school.

While math and reading remediation programs were available “across the district,” Beaulieu said, these programs have seen significant cuts over the past two years. 

“The reality is that our students no longer have the support to be successful without being in special education,” Beaulieu said. “This is a vicious cycle.”

But School Committee Chairman John Kelly said that remediation “isn’t the solution to the entire problem,” noting that social and emotional issues are “probably the more significant and more expensive” factors. 

School Committee member Kyle Belanger added that, when it comes to remediation and special education programming, “I think there is an absolute relationship that’s undeniable.”

The district’s challenges likely won’t end with this budget cycle, according to Young, with a larger budget gap anticipated next year.

But for now, Schlachter said, the committee will focus on maintaining as many school employees as possible.

“I think I speak for all of us when I say, as we go through and look at these numbers, we’re going to do our best to save people and retain people here,” Schlachter said.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com. 
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