This site aims to inform and mobilize Beverly parents to take an active role in all issues related to the funding and operation of the city's schools. It was launched in the spring of 2008, when the city saw its first-ever override attempt fail, followed by the closure of a nearly-new elementary school. Subsequent years have seen further cuts that have led to larger class sizes across the district. While the opening of an impressive new high school and plans to replace the city's aging middle school give us reason to be optimistic, the school community must be ever vigilant in demanding appropriate school funding by city and state governments, and better community communications from the district and School Committee.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Hayes Grilled by Council

In another wild session at City Hall, Dr. Hayes presented the approved school budget to the City Council, and then was subjected to over an hour of questioning on all aspects of the plan, and the convoluted process that gave rise to it.

First, a few new points or clarifications in his initial presentation:

The approved plan eliminates 23.3 full time positions at the elementary level (including teachers, and other administrators) as a result of closing McKeown. One elementary instrumental music position is also eliminated, but Hayes says it shouldn't result in any loss of program, as High School and Briscoe instructors can be utilized for added coverage.

In addition, 4.7 teaching positions and 2.5 SPED positions will be eliminated at the high school, and Latin will no longer be offered as a language.

On to the questioning by the Councilors:

Council President Tim Flaherty worried about some of the revenue projections in the plan, specifically the full-day kindergarten and sports fee projections if parents opt out, rather than paying the higher fee. Councilor Maureen Troubetaris later continued this line of questioning, saying she had heard of many people dropping sports because of the increasing cost. Hayes confirmed that football registration was down considerably from the previous year.

"If you've overestimated revenue, you have a big problem." Troubetaris stated.

Several councilors also complained about the unfairness of the three-tiered fee for sports, and the lack of a family cap on the costs.

Many Councilors, as well as Dr. Hayes still seem very unsure of the sustainability of the current plan, and talked about the need to reconvene the Long-Range Forecasting Group, and plan for future reconfiguration of the system, whether that be the ECC model as originally proposed, or various other modified elementary and/or middle school models.

Hayes also discussed the current projected class sizes, and indicated that he believes they are "optimal, but not likely where we will be come September," because at this point in the year they account for students who are known to be moving out of the City, but not those that will be moving in to take their place.

He expects class sizes will go up, but said there is some classroom space available, and a contingency of three teaching positions in the budget that he can add over the summer to deal with specific class-size issues. He also said that some specific class size problems can be addressed though open enrollment.

Hayes defended his administration staffing levels against continued suggestions that he cut administration positions, saying that for a district our size "we are at the bottom level of what we should have," and saying a study group recently supported that conclusion.

He placed much of the blame for our current situation on the State and Federal Governments, saying "All across this Commonwealth, there are people having this same conversation." He also pointed to the minimally funded mandates of the Federal No Child Left Behind Act, but said that at the district level, "We are using our money wisely."

One interesting exchange occured when Finance Chairman Don Martin asked Hayes what the figure in the budget for the currently-under-negotiation union contracts was, and Hayes said he couldn't say because it was an active negotiation. Martin then asked to take a brief recess, and returned to press Hayes further on the subject. From what we have been told, Hayes is not legally allowed to disclose this figure during a contract negotiation.

Councilor Wes Slate, later stated that he took exception to Martin's comments to Dr. Hayes about releasing figures about an ongoing budget negotiation.

Speaking on the specifics of redistricting, and open enrollment, Slate later asked Hayes if the current redistricting map is final, or if it would be adjusted further, to which Hayes responded "To me, the map stands."

Hayes stated that he has moved all current open enrollment students back to their home schools, and anyone interested would have to reapply. He said they would aim to have all open enrollment decisions made by the end of July, but that it was "doubtful that every open enrollment request will be honored."

The subject of the $680,000 in savings from recycling that Mayor Scanlon provided as a revenue source for the 5-school model was also a much-discussed subject. John Burke stated that he had "a lot of angry constituents" and that the way the money was offered, "may be a disincentive for people to recycle."

Troubetaris also stated that they have been under extreme pressure to give back at least some of the recycling savings to citizens.

Flaherty asked what would happen if the Council denies the $680,000 transfer, and asked Hayes if they would return to the 4-school plan. Hayes stated that he hoped that wouldn't happen, but that it would be the School Committee's decision what to do. He speculated that at this point they might opt to make $680,000 worth of cuts, rather than starting a new restructuring plan, which would be extremely difficult to implement at this late date. Those cuts would be on the order of the ones Hayes initially outlined as a nuclear option (cutting athletics, music, art, and/or library)

School Committee President Annemarie Cesa then took the podium, and walked the Councilors through that convoluted process that got them to this point: from the initial requirement to live within the Mayor's first budget figure that led the Superintendent to the 4-school plus ECC model; to the Mayor's last minute plan, and offer of the trash fee money only in support of the 5-school plan.

School Committee member David Manzi then stood up and stated "The 5-school plan was the Mayor's Plan" and that the Mayor's vote was the deciding vote both in killing the 4-school plan, and in approving the 5-school plan. (the 4-school plan lost by a vote of 4-3, and while the 5-school plan passed by a vote of 5-2, it's pretty clear that the 5th voter, Jim Latter, wouldn't have voted for it, had the 4-school plan not been voted down previously.)

Councilor Pat Grimes also supported the Committee members' view of the process stating that the "past few months have been chaos, and not the way government should work."

Next known date on the Calendar is the public hearing on the budget next Monday night. All other meeting dates are listed at the top of the left hand column, and will be updated as we get new information.

6/17 UPDATE: The Salem News reports on the meeting today, saying the "'chaos' isn't over yet."

The News also added more details in two blog posts later today, here and here.

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