During a budget discussion on Thursday, Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh notified the Hopkinton School Committee that proposed cuts to physical, occupational and speech therapy services had been revised.
The initial plan to cut 0.8 of a staff position from physical therapy, 0.8 from occupational therapy and 0.5 from speech therapy had been met with backlash from educators and parents over the last several weeks.
As a result of more discussions with stakeholders over the holiday break period, Cavanaugh said occupational therapy would be reduced by 0.4, but the other services would not be cut at all.
She added that if it is found that speech/language therapists have extra time, they may be “redeployed” to offer literacy instruction and interventions.
Cavanaugh said speech/language therapists have a strong background in phonics and phonemic awareness that could be helpful to students at Marathon and Elmwood.
She added that SPED delivery models would be closely watched to see where changes may be made in the future. Noting that the district primarily uses an “outdated, nonintegrated pull out” approach that separates SPED students from their peers, Cavanaugh said other options should be considered.
“It will augment the social, emotional and behavioral goals for kids,” she said, referring to using a different model.
Although most of the therapy positions will stay intact in this budget plan, the remaining reduction and data collection process still came under fire.
Jen Halliday and Dan Malone of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) gave a presentation, saying the approach that was taken when proposing cuts left out key stakeholders, were not data-driven and discounted the role of therapy providers.
Halliday said she only received requested data through a Freedom of Information request made on Nov. 9, with the data coming on Nov. 28.
She said the remaining proposed reduction equals two days per week of a therapist’s job, adding, “No cuts are acceptable.” Halliday noted there is no compelling argument that the programs would not be hurt by the measure.
Showing 15 years of data about levels of therapy in the district, Halliday said staffing is the lowest it has been even though SPED students comprise 12.5 percent of the school population.
Malone outlined the other duties therapists have beyond direct service delivery to students such as meetings, phone calls, travel, prep work, evaluations, consultations and more.
Halliday also noted that speech therapists cannot be “repurposed” as literacy instructors because they may not have sufficient training.
She said the discord between parents and educators and school administrators leads to bad morale and affects levels of trust, hurts employee retention and may increase out-of-district placements, among other things.
Earlier, School Committee member Holly Morand, attending remotely, said she objected to the remaining SPED cut and still was unclear on the “gap” between the district’s data and the “rebuttal” information from stakeholders.
Other members of the board praised school administrators for sitting down with concerned parties to discuss the disagreement and ultimately altering the proposed staffing cuts.
School Committee member Jenn Devlin said that the town and schools had managed to eliminate the “us versus them mentality” that existed in the past. She expressed it is “dangerous” to have that confrontational dynamic within the smaller school community between educators and administrators.
She expressed the wish the “adversarial” relationship could be fixed.
School Committee member Lya Batlle-Rafferty complimented the superintendent for talking to people and compromising instead of just “holding her ground” during the dispute.
She said it is “commendable” that conversations are going on with different points of view.
In response to the SEPAC presentation, School Committee vice chair Amanda Fargiano said the downward trend in the number of therapists may be attributed to the fact that teaching methods have changed. She said instead of looking back, she wants to make sure the district is ready and prepared in the future to handle student growth.
Chair Nancy Cavanaugh said this budget process has had the most engagement from all stakeholders than she has witnessed in years. She thanked the superintendent and other administrators for all the time they spent working on it.
Overall, the budget once again was presented by Director of Finance Susan Rothermich. The fiscal year 2024 net operating budget request is $60,199,487 — an 8.4 percent increase. The Select Board had requested an increase cap of 5.1 percent.
Rothermich noted that 80 percent of the budget covers salary/staff, and negotiated salary increases totaled a 5.6 percent hike alone, at $3 million.
She reported that usually towns hear about Chapter 70 funds from the state in late January. Because there is a new governor, the communities will have to wait until March to get that information.
Nancy Cavanaugh pointed out that Chapter 70 money goes through the town and not the school department.