Union Concessions Reduce Budget Deficit

Caroline Cohn


 Teachers voted on Friday, March 19 for several union concessions that will save the schools $700,000, thereby closing the budget gap from the projected $2.1 million to $1.4 million.  78% of the teachers in the Walpole Teachers Association (WTA) voted in favor of these compromises, which consist of wage and health insurance concessions, as well as a freeze in tuition reimbursement in the upcoming year.  The reduction in health care is the most monetarily significant concession, as it will save the town $500,000.

  Teachers voted in favor of the concessions after receiving a worst-case scenario projection from the school committee announcing that between 45 and 50 teachers would have to be laid off if neither concessions were made nor aid was received.  The projection also called for decreased custodial and secretarial services, elimination of certain electives—including Wood—and reductions of others, foreign language reductions at the middle schools, and significantly increased class sizes.  Before they voted, the teachers were also aware that an agreement was made between the Town Administration and the School Committee that all of the money saved through union concessions would be used to save jobs.

  The concessions made by the teachers will drastically reduce the number of layoffs predicted by the school committee.  Superintendent Lincoln Lynch said that the concessions show that “the teachers are a respectable group willing to sacrifice,” and added that “it’s really a great thing that our teachers were willing to personally sacrifice so that we could maintain a high-performing school district.”

  Additionally, Lynch believes the teachers’ efforts may inspire other groups to make compromises as well.  “I hope it will start the snowball rolling,” he said, “where now perhaps our other unions will fall in line.” If the secretaries and custodians indeed follow suit, an additional $70,000 will be saved. The cafeteria workers will not be asked to give up any more this year due to last year’s sacrifice of accepting a zero pay raise. Non-union members are already making the specified concessions, saving the town $100,000; thus the deficit could be reduced by close to one million dollars through employee concessions, saving nearly half of the original projection of layoffs.

  However, even with all of these concessions, the school committee is left with a sizable budget gap that will have to be made up largely through layoffs.

  Another potential source of assistance to help offset the deficit is any additional federal, state, and local aid to the schools.  The Walpole Public Schools receive 5% of their operating budget from federal aid, 25% from state aid, and 70% from local aid. Walpole was able to save half of the $1 million it received last year from Obama’s federal stimulus package, putting Walpole “in better shape than many of the towns around us who used all of their money last year” said Lynch; however, additional federal stimulus money is not expected this year. Furthermore, Walpole can expect little help from Massachusetts, as the state legislature has warned that it may cut local aid by 4%, which would mean a $400,000 loss for the town of Walpole, of which the schools would have to absorb two-thirds.  This cut in state aid would only augment the schools’ deficit.

  The town could aid the schools by enacting a meals and hotel tax, which would bring in about $200,000 for the Walpole’s schools; however, the measure has yet to be voted on.

  The schools must therefore largely rely on local funding if they wish to save any additional teachers; however, the school committee is not requesting an override to increase taxes to obtain these funds due to the burden that the harsh economic climate is already having on Walpole citizens.  Still, School committee member Nancy Gallivan believes “the majority of help we’re going to get will come from here in Walpole.”

  To ease the number of layoffs, the school committee is also looking into cutting 40% of freshmen sports from the budget. Lynch said “this cut is still up for discussion, but how can you [justify] cutting a classroom teacher and not cutting our sports? Where are our priorities?” Lynch also feels that these sports may be able to sustain themselves through private fundraising. “You can’t really hold a fundraiser to save a teacher,” he said, “but people fundraise all the time for sports.”

  The athletic budget would be even more precarious if new Athletic Director Bill Tompkins hadn’t already reduced the athletic deficit by over $57,000. When he stepped into his post, Walpole High School’s athletic department was in debt by $65,000. Lynch said potentially all freshmen sports would have to be unfunded rather than simply 40% if it hadn’t been for Tompkins’ efforts.

  To counteract the increased class sizes that layoffs will unavoidably bring, several elective classes at the high school will likely be consolidated or even eliminated so that teachers will have more available periods to teach academic classes, thereby keeping academic class sizes lower.

  Final budget decisions cannot be made until May 1, when the School Committee knows how much aid, concessions, and revenue it will receive.  All untenured teachers have already been given pink slips notifying them that their position within the Walpole Public Schools is still uncertain for next year, and they will be informed before the end of the school year whether or not they will be returning.

  Superintendent Lynch had called the initial budget projection the “most damaging budget projection in his 23 years of education;” however, the concessions made by teachers have already greatly tempered the grim predictions of the forecast. Still, the Walpole Public Schools stand a lot to lose in the upcoming year, and Superintendent Lynch foresees more difficult years ahead. Uncertainty hangs in the air as teachers, students, faculty, and parents await decisions that will determine layoffs, class sizes, and athletic and elective cuts.