Walpole administrators make final budget decisions

Caroline Cohn

By Caroline Cohn

Class of 2010

 

   As the school system’s financial problems continue to mount, navigating through these troubled economic waters has become increasingly complicated. With Superintendent Lincoln Lynch directing the changes to be made to the schools, Walpole has been fortunate enough to benefit

 from a leader with a strong financial background commended by his colleagues.

  Despite the expertise and dedication present at the local level, however, the major remaining obstruction to finalizing the budget lies at the state level. The state’s undecided course of action concerning its budget, a budget referred to by Bernstein as “a moving target,” has translated to an uncertain course of action for the Walpole school system as well.  This  aspect of the state budget as a “moving target” has provided one of the most frustrating challenges to administrators as of yet. 

  The issue lies with the discord between the governor, House of Representatives, and Senate, which have all proposed different budgets for Massachusetts but must soon come to an agreement. While the School Committee initially hoped that Level 3 cuts—Levels 1 and 2 have

already been finalized—would be the worst-case-scenario, now these cuts are not only a certainty, but Level 4 cuts are also a possibility. Whether the new budget accepted by the state is favorable or unfavorable for Walpole will partially determine how many more cuts will be necessary for Walpole.  “Level 4 is not a likelihood, but it is certainly a worry,” says Nancy Gallivan, Chairman of the School Committee.

  Level 4 budget cuts are still being discussed but would likely include a raise in athletic fees to 200 dollars per sport (a raise from this year’s fee by 45 dollars) as well as a possible raise in lunch prices. Beyond these raises in fees, the rest of the gap will be closed with the loss of more personnel.

  Another controversial issue still on the table is cafeteria privatization.  Since no decisions have officially been made regarding the future of the cafeteria program, Jean Kenney, Assistant to the Superintendent, would only guardedly offer that she and her fellow school committee members “have looked at all of the proposals and have come close to finding a solution for the resolution of the issue.” Mrs. Gallivan describes the privatization dilemma as “the difficulty of choosing between a set of tough choices,” because “if the cafeteria program is privatized, these people still have jobs.” However if teachers are laid off instead, they may have difficulty getting a job because the decision about the layoffs will be made relatively late, and they will therefore have less time to job search. On the other hand, if privatization does occur, these cafeteria workers may suffer cutbacks in their salaries and their benefits.

  Privatization is just one of the sensitive issues being dealt with by Lynch and his colleagues, for in addition to the basic logistics of the cuts being made, the emotional ramifications of the cuts have demanded attention as well.  Bernstein says that while Lynch often had to “take the emotions out of the process, he was always sensitive to the fact that he was dealing with real people.”

  Several decisions first had to be made concerning the delicate issue of when and how to notify the staff of possible layoffs.  Administrators and School Committee members were caught between a reluctance to unnecessarily incite a panic among the staff when there were still a number of unknowns, but also an obligation to honor the staff members’ “right to know that money was short,” says Mrs. Gallivan.  She adds that they also “did not want the staff to hear any of this news secondhand.”

  As one involved in the first-hand conversations with the cafeteria workers, Mrs. Gallivan says from experience, “I think that the words and the sentiments are sincere when people are told ‘it has no reflection on the job you’ve done, we just don’t have the money.’ You can say that sincerely,” she says, “but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re on the receiving end of the news.”

In determining when to break this difficult news to the staff, School Committee members had another component to consider: the students. “We wanted to minimize impact and reduce negative morale to teachers for two reasons,” says Mrs. Kenney, “first, we did not want to give the teachers anxiety, and secondly, we did not want the teachers’ anxieties to adversely affect the students.”

  Though decidedly less extreme than the emotions felt by the staff members who now personally fear for their jobs, those in charge of making these difficult choices have also felt the burden of this regrettable economic climate. “The School Committee Members, the Superintendent—none of us enjoy the difficulties, and we all feel terrible;” says Mrs. Kenney, “it’s a very stressful period of time.” However, she and others have kept their own struggles in perspective. Mrs. Kenney says, “we recognize that it’s not just Walpole; it’s the nation and the world.”

  Despite innumerable obstacles, there have been positive aspects of this process. The cooperation of the unions with the administration has been laudable.  “Unions in other towns have been hostile,” says Kenney, “but this is not the case in Walpole.”  The Walpole unions have

consistently met with administrators to consider concessions that would help the schools and benefit students during this trying time. Additionally, Walpole schools have been able to avoid Special Education privatization, which has been deemed a great achievement because the staff of this department has been able to keep their jobs. 

  None of these accomplishments would have been possible, however, without the thoughtful and thorough  efforts of those in charge. With Lynch leading this dedicated team, Walpole is in very able hands, and as Bernstein confirms, “the superintendent has experience working all of the angles, so if anyone can do [the job], it’s him.”    

  Despite glimmers of optimism, predictions for the future revealed that skepticism remains the prevalent view.  Mrs. Kenney says that “the economic forecast indicates that balancing the budget will be as difficult next year as this year.”  Mrs. Gallivan says she too is “fearful for next year.”  “Walpole is reliant on state aid,” Mrs. Gallivan says,“but looking at the state budget seems like there’s potential [for the situation] to be worse next year.” Bernstein also acknowledged that

next year will present the added difficulty of cutting from an already cut budget.

  Walpole residents can expect to see many differences in the schools next year, including reductions in Walpole High School’s English, Foreign Language, and Art departments, an elimination of a minimum of 6.5 positions at the elementary level, the loss of the middle school

Wood program, larger class sizes in grades receiving cuts, as well as numerous other reorganizations, reforms, and losses.  However, whatever difficulties and changes next year may bring, Walpole residents may rest assured knowing that many dedicated persons are keeping the best interests of Walpole’s students in mind as they work to come up with solutions to the financial troubles.