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School Committee roundup: Educators decry proposed FY24 budget cuts to special education positions

by | Nov 11, 2022 | Education, Featured: Education

The School Committee met before a packed room Thursday night to discuss proposed cuts in the upcoming special education budget, where administrators stressed that they are already stretched thin because of increases in students and the complexity of their needs.

During the public comment period of the three-hour meeting, Hopkinton Teachers Association President Becky Abate noted that the high needs student population has doubled over the past decade and now encompasses almost 30 percent of Hopkinton’s public school students. [Editor’s note: This paragraph has been updated to clarify that the 30 percent figure refers to high needs, which encompasses special education (12.4 percent), English Language learners (6.9 percent) and students from low-income families (7.9 percent).]

In the proposed special education budget, proposed staffing cuts included a 0.8 full-time employee (FTE) in physical therapy, a 0.8 FTE in occupational therapy, and a 0.5 FTE in speech therapy. This would provide funding for administrative positions.

“But this doesn’t tell you the real story of those students who can’t be measured based on numbers alone,” Abate said. “You also have to look at the significance of their needs, which has, due to the pandemic, increased exponentially.”

Some students with special needs have experienced learning loss due to the lack of classroom time. This has been coupled with an increase in “serious social and emotional challenges,” according to Abate, and trying to help control behavioral issues has taken up more of teachers’ time.

“These have been the most challenging years that teachers have ever faced,” she continued. “Our students need a lot. And they deserve a lot. But unfortunately our current staffing situation does not set them or our educators up for success.”

She stressed that teachers are not asking for salary increases but “more boots in the classroom.”

Janet Constantine, a teacher at the preschool for the past 20 years, explained that while the proposed budget will fund a 0.9 FTE position for an ABA (applied behavior analysis) paraprofessional, that person already is part of the staff, currently funded through a grant.

That staffer is “not enough,” as needs have “dramatically increased,” Constantine said. As of November, the pre-kindergarten program has qualified an additional 18 students, with many more evaluations pending — the third straight year that pre-K has seen a 50 percent increase in students needing specialized services. While administrative positions may be needed, she said they should not come “at the expense of student-facing positions.”

These needs were reflected by teachers and specialists at every school. At Marathon School, teachers “have been forced to function from a place of prioritizing safety over student learning,” said specialist Kristen Pearson.

Four learning specialists there were surveyed about their situations, she said. Each specialist said they have students who exhibit challenging behavioral issues such as bolting and aggression that require physical management on a weekly basis, and they at times have had to evacuate classrooms for safety reasons.

Three new director positions “are exactly the opposite” of what her school needs now, she stressed.

Comments from all educators drew loud clapping from the audience.

School Committee chair Nancy Richards Cavanaugh added that she has received about 20 emails mostly regarding the proposed cuts to the positions mentioned. She noted that the operational budget will not be voted upon until January, giving stakeholders time to interact with the School Committee. She added that she was encouraged to see so many people involved in the budget process early.

Budget presentations made

Budget presentations were presented on special education, technology and buildings and grounds.

Director of Student Services Karen Zaleski noted that there has been a contractual increase in salaries of $258,949. Positions that previously were grant funded this school year, as well as new requests, total $446,275.

The positions requested are a pre-K director and two special education directors, one for grades K-5 and the other for grades 6-12. There also is a 0.8 clerical position request. She said these positions were requested after three years of data collection and analysis with Athena Consultancy.

She thanked the educators who attended and expressed “both passion and concern” about the proposed cuts.

“How I came to the recommendation for the reduction was based on a triangulation of data,” Zaleski explained. This included caseload data, evaluation data and year-end reporting. She said students still will get the services they need, but she is obligated to present a “morally and ethically responsible budget that’s fiscally sound.”

Schedules will be looked at to see what can be modified. Regarding the director positions, there is a “great need to oversee the instructional process.” She said the proposal is “not an either/or” that sacrifices therapists over directors.

She also noted that transportation expenses have increased 61 percent in the proposed budget, by $615,876. There also is an out-of-district budget tuition increase of $76,950.

School Committee member Holly Morand, a parent of a student with special needs, said that this “sends a mixed message to the community.” She said there should be a teacher forum as part of the budget process. She also questioned spending $6 million on a new athletic field when there are cuts in specialized staff.

There has been a Community Preservation Committee request for the athletic field funding that has been submitted for $5,801,530. The track is at the end of its useful life, and there is not enough seating for events. It was approved unanimously.

Devlin added that the data was from last year, which didn’t take into account the increases experienced since September. Zaleski said she did get data in September on the previous school year.

For technology, there was a 4 percent budget increase requested that totals $98,479. This includes operating systems and infrastructure, staffing and instructional hardware and software. The full-time website manager position will be cut, and staff will take on that responsibility.

The budget for the Buildings and Grounds Department reflected a 10.5 percent increase of $374,800.71, and the total proposed budget for fiscal year 2024 is $3,952,231.50. The increase will be directed to maintenance personnel, including a floating custodial position, as well as for electric and gas expenses. Custodial supply expenses for trash bags and paper products also have increased.

MCAS scores explained

Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey LaBroad gave a report on the district’s MCAS test results, noting that there are some reasons to celebrate.

He noted that 10th-graders had not taken an MCAS test since they were in the seventh grade due to the pandemic, as the test could not be administered in the traditional manner. He called the 2022 test a new baseline to judge achievements.

The MCAS is “only one piece of our progress monitoring puzzle,” LaBroad added. There also are several assessments by educators.

Compared to the state average, Hopkinton’s English language arts (ELA) scores dropped only slightly while the statewide average dropped more steeply. In math, state scores for Grades 3-8 increased by 6 percent but Hopkinton “beat them by one,” LaBroad noted.

Hopkinton outpaced the state average in every metric, including Grade 5 and 8 science and Grade 10 math and science.

There were “bounce-backs,” LaBroad said, particularly in ELA at the high school and Grade 5 science, technology and engineering. Vocabulary proficiency for elementary school students also increased.

“I think it’s encouraging to see that the kids are doing OK,” said School Committee member Jennifer Devlin.

Member Lya Batlle-Rafferty countered that there were some areas where there was not growth or negative growth, which LaBroad called “a fair statement.” She added that the MCAS “judges the schools, not the kids.”

Member Amanda Fargiano asked LaBroad to come back with a subgroup analysis to do a deeper dive into the needs of groups such as high-needs students and those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, where deficits were seen.

Construction underway on Marathon addition

Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh announced that work has begun at Marathon School to add four classrooms.

She also noted that there is a need with K-1 playground structures because of increased demand. For example, there are only four swings for 600 students. To supplement equipment, basketball hoops were funded by a grant. Teachers have been creative by drawing lines for hopscotch and allowing students to walk along the rock wall.

There has been a Community Preservation Act application submitted for $1 million for playground additions. The committee voted unanimously to approve this.

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