|Lauren C. Ostberg|
As officials brace for cuts in local aid and a tight city budget, School Committee members are discussing layoffs and elimination of jobs in city schools.
"The most important thing is to get through one year at a time without a reduction in programs," said Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi.
The School Committee's Finance and Facilities Committee reviewed a level-service draft of the district's operation budget for the next fiscal year. A revised version will be formally presented to the community and open to public hearing on June 10.
The draft of the budget increases spending by 2.93 percent, just $1,022 short of $1.4 million Mayor Curatone had allocated for the schools in his proposed budget. It incorporated all mandatory raises, a restoration to base salary of non-union staff and anticipated revenues from the federal stimulus bill.
The latest budget proposes eliminating two non-teaching positions for $81,000 in savings. Pierantozzi recommended the elimination of a vacant special education position, and plans to use stimulus money to fund a second position.
Ward 4 committee member Christine T. Rafal expressed concerns about the impact this decision would have on inclusion specialist's caseloads.
Finance Director Patricia Durette found efficiencies in the budget by choosing not to replace rarely-used equipment. The district will also reduce copies maintenance to save $2,500, and eliminate the administration's use of accountant software support to the tune of $15,000.
Proposed spending increases include $15,000 to restore library books and $13,940 to operate a middle school intramural basketball program. The district eliminated the program in 2008, and the Recreation Department has been operating a separate program since then. This funding would pay coaches a negotiated stipend.
Ward 3 School Committee member Adam Sweeting spoke in favor of an intramural program, reminding the committee that they had verbally committed to making middle grades a top priority.
Ward 5 member Mark Niedergang suggested the district employ an additional four paraprofessionals in order to accommodate all applicants to the district's pre-kindergarten SMILE program.
He read a letter from a district parent that expressed excitement at her child's inclusion in the program, but disappointment at other children's missed opportunity. Enrollment in SMILE is determined by lottery. According to Niedergang's statistics, 198 children applied for SMILE, and the school accepted 160.
"If we have decided that early childhood education is a core priority of the district, we should give them an equal opportunity of education," he said.
Pierantozzi countered that Somerville has "a tradition of rich childhood education and rich staffing," and that part of the program's strength was its attentive staff. Currently, each classroom of 20 students has one full-time teacher, one full time paraprofessional, and one shared paraprofessional whose schedule is negotiated between two teachers. He believes that each classroom may be able to accommodate 22 children, a measure that would not significantly impact the wait list.
He also suggested that, given the attrition rates for the SMILE program - approximately ten percent of accepted students do not appear in class - the empty spots could be more frequently restocked with children from the waiting list. He also expressed doubts about diverting the district's tightly-budgeted resources to the SMILE program. Last year, 233 students participated in Somerville's SMILE and ECIP programs; 49 of them went to a private school for kindergarten.
"We need to be cognizant of the fact that SMILE is a service," Sweeting said.
Niedergang suggested funding the program by eliminating a second full-time assistant principal position at the high school and cutting the $15,000 allocated to library books. "I'm more interested in seeing young children in our school than I am in seeing a few more books in the library," he said.
Committee member M. Teresa Cardoso, of Ward 3, reminded the committee that they had settled the assistant principal issue, and asked Niedergang to submit a formal proposal if he wished to discuss it further.