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School Committee chair: Requested budget cuts would ‘end district as we know it’

by | Mar 4, 2023 | Education, Featured: Education

Hopkinton Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh and School Committee members said they were taken by surprise when the Select Board requested they come back with a budget reflecting a 5.1 percent increase rather than the $60.1 million fiscal year 2024 proposal, which has an 8.3 percent increase.

Cavanaugh said when cherry sheet numbers came in — predicting state aid and assessments to towns — the district was “pretty thrilled,” because the $1.2 million gap of the 8.3 percent higher budget was reduced by $912,862, leaving a gap of $280,000.

However, that all changed when the Select Board on Tuesday asked for a reduction in the school budget of $1.7 million, or 3.2 percent.

The superintendent described the consequences as “very dire. It’s not a smooth situation that will be easy to achieve,” she said.

Cavanaugh explained that with a median teacher salary of $72,000, the cuts would be the equivalent of eliminating 24 full-time educators. “It is really debilitating,” she said.

She said that the proposed budget administrators has been working with for several months contained requests for 19.65 full-time educators, totaling $1.2 million. But even if all of those positions were removed, they’d still would be short by $400,000.

Additionally, some positions in the workforce are required by law and cannot be removed, she said.

Administrators revisit positions, programs

Cavanaugh and other administrators met Thursday morning to discuss ways to reduce the budget by $1.7 million.

From the special education department, Cavanaugh listed a pre-K director, Grades 6-12 director and school social worker as possibly being on the chopping block.

Other positions on the list potentially to be cut included two additional teachers for Grade 5, a high school physical education and wellness teacher, one instrumental music position, two technology integration specialists, one guidance counselor, elementary paraprofessionals, one custodian and three Grade 6 literacy (English teacher) positions, as well as cut in hours for a business, technology and engineering position.

Various programs could be affected as well, including a phasing out of the Mandarin program, changes to middle school/freshmen sports and reductions in fine arts and wellness. Plans to add another school bus would be scrapped to save $78,000.

Cutting the positions and programs could impact the students detrimentally and result in larger class sizes and inadequate services for vulnerable students. About 30 percent of students have “high needs,” the superintendent said, such as disabilities, low income, English not as a first language and more.

Loss of bus would `increase problems’

Director of Finance Susan Rothermich noted the possibility of losing an additional bus was “not great. … I have no other words for it.”

School Committee chair Nancy Cavanaugh said the transportation situation already is challenging for parents and would lead to longer rides for kids or more cars on the road as parents drive students to school to avoid lengthy trips. It would compound an existing traffic problem.

“Some of these things are quality of life to the town,” she said.

School Committee member Lya Batlle-Rafferty said every time the district tries to push forward or catch up, something happens to stop those efforts.

“We keep robbing now and pushing things into the future. I’m frustrated having to see this and it is heart breaking,” Batlle-Rafferty said.

The superintendent referred to Hopkinton’s per pupil expenditure cost of approximately $15,000 while ranked second in quality in the state. That’s compared to first-ranked Weston, a district that spends $30,000 per pupil cost.

She also pointed out Hopkinton’s achievements and rankings on test scores.

“Cutting the flesh off the bones does not feel very good. These kinds of rankings won’t be sustained. We’ve been getting a bang for the buck but when you mess with it, it will be incredibly detrimental,” the superintendent said. She added that hearing the district had to cut $1.7 million was a surprise and “unnerving.”

Member refuses to support altered budget

School Committee member Jenn Devlin changed the course of the discussion by advising the superintendent not to exert any more energy trying to find places to cut the budget.

She said that she stood by the school budget approved in January and felt the $1.7 million reduction figure by the Select Board was “arbitrary” and “without forethought.”

Said Devlin: “I am not interested in being part of that. … I will not entertain adjustments to teachers and transportation. I won’t approve a [different] budget.”

Vice chair Amanda Fargiano noted the Select Board did not vote on the measure on Tuesday. She said she heard concerns about the long-term ramifications of the overall capital budget and its impact on taxpayers.

However, the turn to the operating budget surprised her.

“I’m confused where we are,” she said. “I don’t see how it could work for the district.”

Added School Committee member Holly Morand, “People come here for our education system. What is the message to the town if we don’t prioritize education? The budget is our moral document.”

Nancy Cavanaugh said that when there was an uproar over $168,000 in reductions to occupational, physical and speech therapy positions, the Select Board members spoke about restoring those hours as well as entertaining ideas to add positions, giving the requests “a thumbs up almost.”

She said she serves on a budget advisory committee that met nine times and there was no indication this possibility was going to happen.

“The process shut down,” Nancy Cavanaugh said. She did not expect to be told to come up with widespread cuts to the budget at this late in the process.

“This doesn’t feel viable. It feels like the end of Hopkinton Public Schools as we know it.”

Adding she didn’t believe parents would support the action, Nancy Cavanaugh said she looked forward to working with the Select Board to discuss “alternative solutions.”

When asked what would happen if the School Committee refused to vote on a pared-down budget, Rothermich replied that the Select Board budget is the budget Town Meeting entertains.

Board members expressed the hope that some kind of work session could be set up as soon as possible.