Photo: The Wellington Elementary School will lose a third-grade teacher with the acceptance of the available revenue budget in fiscal year 2016.
When asked her reaction to the presentation by Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan on the details of cuts facing the district, Jamie Shea at first just shook her head.
For Shea and others who attended the Belmont School Committee meeting Tuesday night, Feb. 24, the impact on education in bridging the anticipated $1.7 million facing the district in the coming fiscal year was akin to listening to an eulogy for the reputation of a proud district.
“It’s extremely sobering to hear the potential cuts we all are facing,” said Shea, who is the current president of the Foundation for Belmont Education, the group that supports excellence and enrichment in Belmont’s six schools.
“It would be transformative to the district. It will impact every single student in the district. Every single one,” she said.
Phelan said the district – which he has been in charge since July – will not be the same to the one which many families moved to Belmont to attend.
“The Belmont Public Schools will struggle deeply to meet the expectations of their students and families that they so rightly deserve. If there were a headline from this presentation, it would be ‘Available Budget Impact Students Experiences Negatively,” Phelan told the Belmontonian after the meeting.
The cuts are necessary due to a historic surge in enrollment, higher expenditures for special education and unfunded state mandates.
During Tuesday meeting, Phelan walked the committee and residents through the components in each school group – elementary, middle school and high school – where savings will be made.
The cuts, which were compiled by the Leadership Council – made up of school principals, senior staff and curriculum directors – are significant and deep by most measures.
(The presentation can be found on the school district’s website.)
Most of the retrenchment, $1.3 million, will come in personnel with the elimination of 22 full-time equivalent professional positions, with the remaining amount coming in less support for instructional material, personal development and facilities and increase fees for student actives and full-day kindergarten.
The cuts include:
- In the elementary schools, the elimination of more than seven aides, the Butler, Burbank and Wellington will lose guidance counselors, a reduction in music education and physical education and the firing of a third grade teacher at the Wellington.
- At the Chenery, there will be wholesale cuts to the long-standing team teaching model in English, math, science social studies and world language in sixth through eighth grades, the eliminate of all eighth grade music and art electives, cutting sections of small group reading and a large reduction in library services.
- Belmont High School will see the elimination of English, math, social studies and fine and performing arts teacher while all the World Language teachers will be reduced to part-timers.
District wide, the science director will be let go as will a preschool teacher. A reduction of instructional material and supplies, facilities, and professional development while student and rental fees are increased.
In total, Belmont will lose more than 14 teaching positions and nearly ten aides.
For classroom teachers, the cuts will fundamentally change the relationship with their students, said John Sullivan, the president of the Belmont Education Association, which represents Belmont teachers and aides in salary negotiations.
“You can’t get to know [your students] personally, to know when they are upset about something and then reach out to support them. It changes the entire student experience,” said the Belmont resident who teaches at Belmont High School.
While the cuts in teaching staff and other savings will drain the system of its red ink, the impact on students will be significant, said Phelan. For example:
- Three of every four elementary students, about 1,300, will be in taught in classes exceeding the school committee’s guidelines for effective education.
- Junior and seniors in high school – more than 600 pupils currently enrolled – will be limited to five courses in a seven-course schedule.
- The average class size for math and English at the high school will be more than 27, effecting 1,250 students.
- More than 300 seniors will be unable to take courses that will impact their chances being accepted at high-performing colleges and universities.
- More than 300 students in the middle school will be heading to study halls due to the cuts in fine and performing arts.
The cut of the science director will seriously delay the district’s plan to move forward with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-related courses which national leaders are calling crucial for all citizens to know.
And the loss of aides and guidance councilors in the four elementary schools will reduce the effectiveness of the district’s Response to Intervention services that identifies educational challenges for young students as well as addressing the social and emotional needs of students.
The magnitude of the cuts was unsettling for those who oversee education in Belmont.
“I think it has the potential to really decimate the system,” said Laurie Slap, School Committee Chair.
“What struck me was that one of our colleagues said that it was so sad to see educational opportunities just shrink for our students from K to 12 especially in the high school. Five courses? That isn’t what anyone expects from this district.”
Phelan said the district, and especially Belmont High School, has been worn down over time by trimming courses and reducing staff. With this major hit
“The reductions we are proposing and the elimination of positions are rooted in the methodology in what we need to do first and what we would like to do second. Our ‘likes to do’ are now are stables and cores – the everyday things – in districts that surround us. We will lose even more ground with the proposed budget,” said Phelan.
For Phelan, the School Committee and many attending the meeting, the only way to preserve the district’s reputation is for the passage of a $4.5 million Proposition 2 1/2 override recommended by the Financial Task Force in January.
“I support the Task Force’s recommendation for the fiscal health of the entire town. If that fiscal health is brought back to a certain level through an injection of funds that goes to sidewalks streets police, fire, and schools, the whole town is a better place,” said Phelan.
At the end of the meeting, Slap said that everyone in town needs to know what the choices they face and everyone needs to get informed to understand what the cuts means to the district.
“It’s important that people get informed and understand what the reductions will bring if we do not pass the … override and get to the polls,” Shea told the Belmontonian.
“Hopefully we can get a coalition of different coalition of different constituent groups that can work cooperatively to make sure our students get the best education they can,” said Sullivan.