HOLDEN, Mass. — Holden schools are facing a potential reduction of eight Holden elementary school teachers along with sweeping district-wide cuts made in an effort to close a budget gap of around $1.5 million dollars.
At Monday night's special school committee meeting, superintendent Thomas Pandiscio proposed cuts that included all district literacy coaches, a vice principal at Wachusett Regional High School, and the reduction of 15 elementary school teachers district-wide to help meet the shortfall.
In Holden, Dawson Elementary school could lose a third, fifth and second grade teacher; Davis Hill Elementary a fifth, second and first grade a teacher; and Mayo Elementary a third and first grade teacher.
Additional reductions include two Wachusett Regional High School English teachers and one Mountview physical education teacher.
The school committee voted 12-6 in support of the motion that would allow the district administration to make cuts "in order to eliminate both known and anticipated deficits" — wording that drew concern from some members.
"It was this blanket statement that some people were concerned about," said school committee member Stacey Jackson. "Two weeks ago we had a balanced budget, last week at the business and finance subcommittee meeting, we had a running deficit of $700,000, and yesterday we had a deficit of $1.5 million, and I did ask the superintendent, 'what's it going to be next week?.' I was not comfortable that this to me was a perceived moving target."
In addition to Jackson, members Julie Kelley, Sarah LaMountain, Deidre Kosky, Erik Scheinfeldt and Lance Harris voted not to support the motion.
Steve Hammond, who voted to support the motion, said the cuts were chosen because they could be implemented three weeks before school starts.
"They aren't the best cuts we could have made, but they are the best cuts we could make right now," he said. "A lot of the emails I received today talked about how we cut teachers before anything else, but nothing can be further from the truth. We cut a number of things first, and we've decimated our administrative staff ahead of teachers."
Hammond said there are also a discussions in executive session that could help change the reductions.
"If those come to fruition, we'd like to reinstate as many of those elementary teachers as we can. On Thursday we'll talk about what progress we've made on that, and we'll probably meet again next week and keep going to keep driving progress on that, so there's a good chance some number of those teachers may be re-instated."
Additionally, the superintendent will meet with school principals on Wednesday to see if there may be alternative cuts in other areas that might be cut.
"The problem is, we're three weeks away from the start of school, so there may be areas people would want to see cut but they're not feasible cuts to do on Aug. 7," said Jackson.
Jackson said she was most concerned about the elementary class size, which will increase to up to 27 students per classroom.
"A class size of 27 or 28 kids, especially at the young elementary grades of first, second and third grade — that's going to be a big challenge for both our students and our teachers. They will rise to the occasion, they've done it before, but it's something else we're putting on them," she said. "Long-term it's going to be a challenge because anytime you cut something out of the budget it's that much harder to get it back in."
Hammond said that the cuts are undoing a lot of the work that the school committee has done over the years.
"We've lost all our literacy coaches, so the teacher training has been done, but the progress that we made on the literacy program has stalled and will probably start to degrade. Class sizes are atrocious, but we don't have a ton of choice given where we are," he said. "I think it's important to note that we're in a crisis mode because of the error of the business manager, but there isn't any money that's missing. If that mistake had not been made, than we would have been in this spot in March or April or May. This is the essentially the budget cliff we said that we were going to hit — we're here. "
The cuts to elementary school teachers also drew criticism from Selectman Anthony Renzoni.
"The town of Holden is looking at eight elementary school teachers getting pink-slipped this week, because the district had a hard time balancing their books the children are going to pay for it," he said. "My daughter is going to be in a 26-child classroom this year, and that's unacceptable. These school committee members will tell you that when times are good anything over 18 is not good, and now we're endorsing 26-children classrooms and taking their libraries away unless parents can get in and volunteer to keep those libraries open."
Throughout the budget process earlier this year, Renzoni said the town of Holden took a lead in supporting the proposed number.
"I was very vocal that we needed to support the schools and this was what they needed. Holden is a lot like Sterling, we supported the budget, and now Holden's children are going to pay for it. It's a pretty sad set of circumstances."
Renzoni said he did appreciate the no votes from the three Holden delegates to the school committee, but said he was saddened to see that there was no public comment session added to Thursday night's agenda.
"I reached out to (chair Duncan Leith), I know that several people in town made the same request, and I just saw that their agenda and there's no public comment. Thursday night I think there will be a couple hundred concerned residents there that have been blindsided by these 11th hour budget cuts, and the elected officials on our school committee are not even going to hold a public comment session to hear from the people that asked them to represent them? I think they're having a hard time remembering that they're there to represent the interests of the people of Holden, as it relates to the schools."
The school committee will meet again at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 9 in the Media Center at Wachusett Regional High School. Renzoni said that if the school committee does not allow for public comment, residents are more than welcome to come to the Holden Board of Selectman's meeting on Monday night.
"We'll make sure they're on T.V. and we'll capture for the record their feelings on this budget crisis," he said.School Cuts include:
- A Curriculum supervisor
- 6 administrative personnel, including literacy coaches
- Closing school libraries (note: library aides will be laid off or reassigned to other positions. The libraries may be run by parent volunteers this year.)
- Reduction of two school bus routes
- Reduction in Athletic Transportation
- A change in stipends for cafeteria monitors
- eliminated high school parking lot security
- Reducing 15 elementary teachers to increase class size to a maximum of 28 students/class (details below)
- Reduction of two English teachers at the HS (teachers will now teach a total of 10 sections of classes a year, rather than the 9 they previously taught)
- Reduction of a PE teacher at the HS
- Reassigning a HS Assistant Principal to be a math teacher
- Elimination of elementary parent conferences (the savings is for the substitutes hired to cover classrooms)
- Additionally, the Chocksett principal position was not reinstated.