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.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Report Shows Effects of Healthcare Costs on Schools

A new report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and The Boston Foundation highlights the drastic effects that increases in health care costs have had on school systems across the state.

An article in the Boston Globe last week summarized the findings:
Hundreds of millions of dollars the state has provided to local school districts to improve classroom education has instead been gobbled up by soaring health care costs for school employees, according to a new report that questions whether Massachusetts has fulfilled the ambitious goals of its 1993 education reform law.

From 2000 to 2007, annual health care costs in school budgets grew by $1 billion, while state aid for schools grew by only $700 million ...

... Largely because of health care costs, school districts have been forced to make painful spending cuts, in books, teachers, and teacher training.
School advocacy groups such as Stand for Children hope the report can add fuel to the drive to pass legislation that would give local governments more power to trim employee health benefits without union approval.  Similar legislation again stalled in the state legislature last year.

Mayor Scanlon, who also serves as President of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, has been a strong voice in favor of "plan design" legislation. Scanlon stated last spring the nearly the entire amount of new spending in the city budget was used to pay for increases in health care costs.

Stand for Children, whose Beverly Chapter held its fall meeting and focus group last week, has identified this as one of the most important advocacy issues this year, saying in a letter to members:
This report underscores the importance of our continued advocacy for health benefit reform.  Thanks to your advocacy and the work of partner organizations, this issue continues to gain traction. With shrinking town and school budgets, we simply can’t afford to leave $100 million or more on the table.

We look forward to working with you in the coming months to ensure that city and town managers are given the tools they need to better manage health care costs in their communities. Providing good health benefits at a lower cost will allow us to save teaching positions and improve outcomes for students.
For information on how you can join Stand and help advocate for action on this issue, please contact Jim Povey.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Highs and Lows at Joint Session

For the first 90 minutes of last night's annual joint session of the School Committee & City Council, the audience at the Hannah School basked in the recent positive buzz the district has been enjoying.  The opening of the new academic building at the high school, winning educational grants, positive press on the school's technology program, and a seemingly successful NEASC accreditation visit has cast a generally positive light on the city's overall high school program.  Even the football team got into the act, winning a trip to this Saturday's Super Bowl.

Much of the early meeting centered around the high school, with Mayor Scanlon detailing a plan to ultimately build two artificial turf fields at the school, funded entirely with grants and private donations.

High School Principal Sean Gallagher gave a thorough presentation on a major Small Learning Communities grant that the high school recently won that will help to provide students with more personalized and supportive learning experiences.

Gallagher won praise from several members of the City Council, for his roll in winning the grant, as well as lowering the dropout rate, and successfully shepherding the school through the disruptive move to the new building all while hosting the NEASC accreditation team.

Superintendent Marie Galinski gave a presentation of the generally positive results of the recent strategic planning survey, and revealed the three top-level goals of the Stategic Planning Committee, which many members of the community have participated in.  The goals will be further detailed at next Wednesday's School Committee meeting.

But then things crashed back to earth with a thud as Special Education Director Debra O'Connor gave her presentation on the mass of regulation and requirements that is Special Education, and the precarious position SPED has placed the current year's budget in.

Today's Salem News story on the meeting, Special Education Costs Breaking Budget, focuses solely on O'Connor's presentation:
The schools have already overspent their contingency budget for special education students this year, placing the entire school budget in a precarious position, City Council and School Committee members were told last night.

Sixteen students that the district had not planned on receiving special education services now require those services, at a cost of $631,459, said Debra O'Connor, special education services administrator.

"That's huge. I've never seen this before," ... We've overspent the contingency budget by about $200,000. When it's November and I come up with numbers like this, it makes me nervous."

School Committee President Annemarie Cesa said the school district has "frozen our budget" to compensate for the unexpected special education costs.

"There's no place left for us to go," Cesa said. "Should this trend continue over the school year, we are in trouble."
O'Connor detailed the "vicious cycle" that state and federal SPED regulations and unfunded mandates, coupled with decreasing support from other support agencies, causes within the district.

The regulations result in many health and mental-health issues being passed onto the schools because they are mandated to deal with any issues even remotely related to a child's education. The schools, she says, become the support agency of last resort.

O'Connor says this forces more general education money to be diverted to SPED, which, in turn, can cause even more of the general school population to fall behind and require SPED intervention. 
Just this week, O'Connor said, four students required psychiatric hospitalization. Beverly is required to pay tutors by the hour to teach the students in the hospital.

O'Connor said schools are required by law to pay for special education services for students from ages 3 to 22 who qualify. The number of special education preschool students has tripled in the last 10 years, she said.
Twenty percent of Beverly students qualify for some type of special education services.

All three of last night's Powerpoint presentations are linked in the relevant sections above.