Walpole schools attempt to close $3.5 million budget gap

Caroline Cohn

By Caroline Cohn

Class of 2010

 

  The first steps of an extensive budget reduction model, proposed by Superintendent Lincoln Lynch, received a unanimous endorsement at the March School Committee Meeting.  His propositions were accepted with a sense of urgency, as the Walpole Public Schools struggle to close a $3.5 million budget gap within the upcoming fiscal year.

  Outlined at the meeting were the first two phases of the budget reduction model, Levels I and II, which will take effect July 1 and account for $2.75 million of the $3.5 million gap.  Over one million dollars will be made up for in reductions in salaries and wages to school employees, involving the losses of fourteen full time employees (FTEs).  Among these losses will be a Boyden Math teacher and a Wood teacher, as the entire Wood program at the middle school level will be cut. 

  When the School Committee first drew up the budget in December, it called for forty layoffs.  Since then, however, the federal government has provided Walpole schools with $745,000 through its stimulus package and $180,000 through Medicaid increases, and the town has come through with an additional $100,000 in relief.

Lynch has also reduced the number of layoffs through attrition—retirements, resignations, voluntary leaves of absence—which will save an additional $195,000 and consequently several positions.  In addition to the 14 FTE losses, six faculty positions will be replaced with non-licensed staff:  two media specialists at the middle schools and one at the high school will be laid off and replaced by aides, and several speech pathologists will be replaced by speech specialists.  Lynch laments that these layoffs and replacements by paraprofessionals constitute “a reduction of services to children,” but he concedes that “same service is $3.5 million more than we have right now.”  

The state has yet to inform the town how much aid it will give, but Lynch says he expects to hear from the House of Representatives on April 15 and from the Senate in June.  “We’ve done our part; we’ve found efficiencies,” Lynch said, “now we need help from the state for more revenues or to relax the mandates they put on us.”  One proposed state revenue is a meals tax; such a tax would generate an additional $400,000 for Walpole.  Any state aid will be put towards closing the remaining $825,000 gap rather than blocking any of the already determined cuts.

  Despite the position losses, there will be no increase in class sizes, which Lynch says is his main priority.  To avoid increasing class sizes, however, many other areas of the budget will face cuts.  Goods and services will be reduced by $615,000 district wide—a ten percent cut.  This cut will include a reduction of field trips, computers, supplies in the classroom, and athletics.  With transportation included, Lynch said at the School Council meeting, athletics are a $60,000 problem, and “it’s not fair to everyone else that [these cuts] are affecting to not have athletics be affected.”  Therefore, $25,000 will be taken from the athletics program and will result in the loss of funding of many scrimmages and non-league games, as well as reductions to the coaching staff.  Extracurriculars will also lose $15,000-a twenty percent decrease in funding-which means that clubs and other activities will have to do much of their own fundraising and the less popular ones will be cut.

  In other areas of the budget, Lynch hopes to avoid losses by moving toward a more solvent model, in which individual programs would cover expenses themselves, through their own revenues.  For full-day kindergarten and extended daycare, for example, a ten percent tuition increase will raise $75,000 to go towards helping to pay for these programs.  The High School’s Bridge program-a program in which students who cannot be mainstreamed in the classroom are taught in an isolated environment-will also be marketed to students, and students’ tuitions will pay for the Bridge teacher; therefore, Lynch said, “there will be a reduction in the budget, but not a decrease in services to students.”  Similarly, in the Special Education Department (SPED), a decrease in the SPED population from 22% to 15% has enabled the town to reduce special education teachers’ hours paralleling a reduction in student needs, thereby saving money ($285,000) without reducing services to SPED students.

  The superintendent will next meet with the principals of each public school to discuss a worst-case-scenario plan for Level III of the budget reduction model, to close the last $825,000, in case Walpole does not receive any additional federal, state, or local aid.  Part of the discussion will include the possible privatization of food services, which may prove to be the most controversial issue of the budget.  Privatization would involve a private food company coming into the Walpole Public Schools and employing Walpole’s cafeteria workers to serve their food.  At this time, Lynch is neither for nor against privatization, and he will not make a decision until the individual food service companies submit their bids on April 6.  He asserts that he will not accept a proposal unless all of Walpole’s current employees’ positions and salaries are maintained; however, he is open to accepting a loss of benefits and pensions.

“It’s unfortunate to force people to fight for their jobs,” Lynch said, “but unfortunately, when you have to close a $3.5 million gap, all options, no matter how distasteful, have to be reviewed.”

  The School Committee will also continue to encourage the teachers’ union to give concessions that will alleviate the loss of direct educational services to children. School Committee members expressed a hope that the teachers’ union would lead the way in admitting concessions so that other unions can be led in to shoulder more of the financial burden.  Meetings will continue to be held with local representatives to the state legislature to advocate adjusting the health insurance plan, reforming education mandates, and pursuing efficiencies in the delivery of special education services.

 The ensuing months will determine the course of action for implementing comprehensive budget cuts to the Walpole public schools.  “A lot of people come up to me and say ‘but these budget cuts aren’t helping education,’” Lynch said.  “I tell them: ‘I know.’  These changes aren’t being made to improve education; unfortunately, they’re being made because we’re being forced to live within our means.”  Students, faculty, and parents can expect to experience significant and far-reaching changes as the school system grapples with its $3.5 million budget gap and attempts to live within its means.