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.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

FY12 Budget Gap may be Less Severe than Expected

The School Committee gave us the first glance at the FY12 budget last night, and while the details are very loose, and many of the assumptions on state funding seem overoptimistic, the bottom line number, a gap of only $255,000, gives us at least some hope that what most expected to be a brutal budget season, may be somewhat less so for the schools.

By way of contrast, the budget gap figure at this point in last year's budget cycle was in excess of $3 million.

Many of the assumptions are based on an early draft of the Governor's budget, and include figures that most on the committee found hard to believe considering the condition of state finances.  But they are the numbers that the state has been telling districts to work with. The most surprising of these, an increase in the state reimbursement rate for extraordinary SPED costs (known as the circuit-breaker) to 60%-65% from a rate that has been in the low 30s.

Most on the committee felt these numbers were far too optimistic, but since they are the only figures they have right now, and are numbers the state is telling districts to use, they are the working numbers in the budget.

The other primary topic of conversation centered around a request by about 16 incoming North Beverly kindergarten parents who have organized and attended the last two committee meetings after being forced to choose another school for full day K.  (Today's Beverly Citizen has more details on this issue.) The parents wanted the committee to add another full-day kindergarten section at North Beverly, so their children could attend what would be their home school.

While money always seems to outweigh the educational benefits of full day kindergarten in Beverly, the concerns over this matter seemed to center as much around an overall space crunch in the district, as they did about the cost of adding a new class.

Since the closing of McKeown three years ago, elementary classroom space across the district has been extremely tight, but the issue has been heard with more frequency this year.  Cove has had to use the science room as a classroom, and this move would require the same situation at North Beverly.  As one committee member stated "We're busting at the seams."

When committee member Karen Fogarty stated that "Kindergarten subscriptions are exceeding our capacity," and wondered what that meant for the long term, president Annemarie Cesa stated that "The Superintendent is working on it," seemingly alluding to what most believe will be an eventual realignment of the elementary schools. Anybody who took the recent survey, or has been in the district for any length of time, knows this is a topic that is never far from mind. The strategic planning subcommittees are currently studying various options.

Based on the early budget numbers, and the conversation last night, such a move may come about as much because of space issues, as because of dollars.  There was no indication, however, that this is anything that is being considered for next year.

In the end, Cesa pressed for a vote on North Beverly, and the majority of the committee decided to allow the additional class, both to ease large kindergarten class sizes across the district, as well as to avoid alienating an organized group of new school parents, and potentially losing them—and their tuition—to a private kindergarten or the tuition-free half-day K program.

So while there was some reason to be optimistic about the budget after last night's meeting, the numbers and details are too soft to put a great deal of faith in at this point.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

School Committee Meets Tonight

The School Committee will hold a Finance meeting tonight, followed by a meeting of its Committee of the Whole, where we hope to find out some more concrete information on where things stand with the FY12 budget.  While all expect it to be another tough budget, no public announcement has been made as to what size gap the district is looking at.  Much of the recent budget news has centered around closing the $400,000 gap in the current year's budget.

The meeting will be held at the Memorial Building, room 164.  Finance begins at 6:30; COTW at 7:30.  In addition to budget, there will be discussion of the status of the high school's accreditation, and talk of the shortage of Kindergarten space at North Beverly, according to School Committee President Annemarie Cesa.  This latter subject was highlighted at last week's meeting when 16 North Beverly parents who had been rejected for kindergarten placement there, made a presentation to the Committee asking them to reconsider, and add another kindergarten classroom at the school. The parents had been told they need to choose another school.

As is often the case at this time of year, many rumors of more specific plans to deal with the budget are swirling around, fed somewhat we assume, by some of the questions in the recent survey.  But at this time, we have heard no confirmation of any major restructuring proposals on the table for this year.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Intriguing Mayor's Race Shaping Up

With today's announcement by City Council President Mike Cahill that he will be a candidate for Mayor this fall, Beverly voters can look forward to what could be the most competitive Mayor's race in memory.

Cahill joins Tim Flaherty, his predecessor as Council President, who announced his candidacy back in October, as a challenger to Mayor Scanlon, who has yet to officially announce, but has made it clear that he does intend to run for an unprecedented ninth term. The Globe even reported last month that the candidacy of 2007 mayoral candidate Rick Marciano—who would have to be a 100-1 longshot in this field—would make it a four man race.

Cahill has strong credentials, both in politics and in education.  He served for ten years on Beacon Hill as Beverly's State Representative, and is a former teacher and founder of the Beverly Education Roundtable.

In his announcement today, Cahill described his education platform:
Build educational greatness throughout our community – We have a unique wealth of innovative educational and business talent right here in Beverly, with our many educational institutions and our strong business sector.  We have the potential to provide diverse learning opportunities to every child and adult in Beverly.  In all areas, but particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (a recognized weakness in the educational system throughout America), the resources right here within our community are impressive.  Building partnerships locally to deliver these opportunities to our children must be a top priority.  Our children can and should develop even greater skills and knowledge; our community and our region have always produced the very best in skilled, educated talent – we can do even more.
While Mayor Scanlon is riding relatively high in the school community due primarily to his success in seeing the high school through to completion, even many of his supporters often question his management style, and acknowledge that Beverly could use some new vision.

With two serious challengers this year, we hope the race can produce a positive debate on the issues, and present some true vision for the city, and some civility—something most recent Mayoral races in Beverly have lacked.

2/16 UPDATE: Today's Salem News has a full report on Cahill's announcement.

Monday, February 14, 2011

New Save Beverly Schools Twitter Feed

We've launched a new Twitter feed, @savbeverlysch, that we plan to use, not only to alert readers to new full-length posts on this site, but also to share all types of information that might be of interest to our readers, but might not be worthy of a full post, or short news items which we'd like to get out in a more timely manner.

This information might include notes on Beverly politics, information on the state budget, tweets from education advocacy groups such as Stand for Children etc.  The most recent 5 posts will appear in the far right sidebar, or if you are a user of Twitter, follow us there for the full feed.

We monitor a variety of relevant Twitter accounts related to education, politics, and local issues, and will retweet anything that might be of interest to the Beverly school community. If you know of any other feeds that you think would be relevant for us to follow, please let us know.

Foundation to Support BHS Laptop Program

With the BHS 1-to-1 Laptop Program set to launch in the Fall, a local group is launching a drive to raise $250,000 over the next five years to help support the program.

The Beverly Education Foundation, whose stated mission is to "stimulate innovation and excellence by supporting educational programs that are outside normal public funding" announced the new program last week. 

According to their website, the funds raised will be used to:
  • Create a learning environment for all students to maximize the use of technology. The Beverly Education Foundation will provide funding in a variety of ways to support students.
  • Enable and sustain access to up-to-date technology for students. This program will offer a lease to own option for parents. BHS students who need to borrow a laptop will be given a loaner each day. Beverly Education Foundation will provide funding to help maintain a supply of loaner laptops.
  • Maintain a state-of-the-art tech support center. Students can bring their leased laptops to this center for repairs and maintenance. Beverly Education Foundation will help fund the cost of establishing this center, including spare parts, software upgrades, and yearly laptop maintenance.
Today's Salem News has more details on the drive, as well as an update on the program at the school, and a recent presentation by technology director Judy Miller to the City Council that demonstrated the program's benefits to students and the district:
In a presentation to the City Council last Monday night at City Hall, school technology director Judy Miller said Beverly will be one of the first public school systems in New England to adopt the "1-to-1 Laptop Learning Initiative," as it is called.

"There's a lot of districts watching Beverly right now," Miller said. "People are going to want to come and see Beverly High School.

Miller gave city councilors a demonstration of the power of laptop learning by using an example of a class learning about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Miller showed a line in a textbook that told about a telephone conversation between President John F. Kennedy and former President Dwight Eisenhower during the crisis. She then clicked a button and played a 30-second tape of that conversation.

Miller also showed an interview with the superintendent of schools in Mooresville, N.C., who credited their laptop program with improving the district's test scores.

"This is definitely going to take Beverly up a couple of notches," Miller said.
You can donate to the Beverly Education Foundation's program through their secure weblink or by mailing your donation to:

The Beverly Education Foundation, Inc.,
PO Box 407,
Beverly, MA 01915.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

City Shows Schools How to do the Shuffle

City Finance Director John Dunn last night detailed a series a moves within various parts of the city and school budget that he says will close the $415,000 shortfall in this year's school budget.  Today's Salem News has details on the meeting and the elements of the plan, which include the previously announced offer by Mayor Scanlon to cover the $100,000 in unplanned unemployment costs from the city's free cash account, as well as several other moves from within various school cost centers.
At last night's City Council meeting, city Finance Director John Dunn outlined a patchwork solution that includes such measures as giving the schools $100,000 from the city's free-cash account and postponing a $96,000 repair job on an elevator at Briscoe Middle School....

...Dunn said he met with Jean Sherburne, the schools' new finance director, to review the school budget and determine possible solutions, and then with Mayor Bill Scanlon.

The review identified potential savings in 17 areas of the school budget of between $117,000 and $190,000 from now until the end of the fiscal year in June.
Those of us that have followed the budget closely the past few years have learned before about the city's creative accounting methods where money has been shuffled from distant places such as the trash account to cover deficits elsewhere.  While it is a bit of a relief to have a solution at hand short of mid-year teacher layoffs, any move of money from a city account to a school account would require a public hearing, and a city council vote.

Several councilors questioned how the city, facing other large unexpected costs this year in the snow removal and police overtime budgets, and looking toward what all expect to be huge budget challenges in FY12, could afford to give the schools the $100,000 from free cash.

Dunn said it would be tough, but the city could afford it, but acknowledged that if there were any further cost overruns "We're in trouble."

He received somewhat qualified support on that statement from city budget analyst Kathy Griffin who made it clear she only analyzed the two specific parts of the budget that accounted for the majority of the funds.

As far as the major new element of that plan, postponing the planned overhaul of an elevator at Briscoe, councilors seemed to dance around the question they really wanted to ask, "Is the elevator safe in its current state?" asking only if it has a current certification.