The Mattapoisett School Committee held a public hearing for the FY 2018 school budget prior to their regular meeting on April 10 at Center School. The public hearing was sparsely attended; however, the debate generated by a single attendee was significant.
Superintendent Doug White outlined the priorities of the school committee and the drivers behind the development of the budget, including promoting academic and social-emotional rigor, special education services, and technology and security needs. The budget, approved unanimously by the committee, is a 1.99% increase over last year, totaling $6,917,439.
White said overall student enrollment in the district has steadily decreased, showing the October 2016 enrollment of 484 students, of which 55 are students with disabilities. Due to a smaller cohort of students currently in Grade 3 moving through the district, the committee was able to shift a general education teacher from Grade 3 to kindergarten to maintain four sections of kindergarten after a teacher retired last summer, and reducing Grade 3 to three sections. Maintaining the number of sections for K-3 will keep the number of students under 20 per class.
White underscored a portion of the budget that reflected an increase in Individual Education Plans, known as IEPs, as well as the district philosophy that special education students be educated within the school district and integrated in the classroom and the school community.
White noted the importance of “meeting the needs of students with special needs and with IEPs and providing a good and appropriate free education.”
The budget reflects a .4 increase in the position of the school psychologist, increasing that position from .6 to full time, and expanding the job description to include behavior analyst as part of her job. This in-house position will assist teachers with intervention in the classroom and assessment of students.
Director of Student Services Michael Nelson said, “It’s a point of pride that not just special ed teachers, but all staff, own the special education students.” He noted that providing special ed services within the school district saves the town money, and having the behavior analyst within the school rather than contracting it out is also a cost-saving measure. Nelson stated, “The cost of one teacher providing special education services to the whole school is equivalent to sending just one to two students out of district for those services.”
Committee member Jim Muse concurred with the value of this service, stating that Mattapoisett provides the special ed services “in the classroom, not out of district or a school within a school.”
When the public hearing was opened, Patricia Donaghue, chairman of the Finance Committee, voiced grave concerns for the financial future of Mattapoisett.
“Many of our town departments are significantly affected by the change in demographics of the town – it’s tough to get volunteer daytime firefighters, the Council on Aging has increased needs.” She said the money must come from somewhere, and the 16.8% decline since 2011 in school enrollment points to a declining need in the school department. With a teacher retiring, it provides an opportunity to reduce the staff, Donaghue said.
“I’m thinking globally. I spoke with friends in other towns like Medfield who say you’re living a dream with class sizes like this.” She continued, “Are we funding like we need, or is it luxury funding?”
Donaghue referred to studies she has read that do not indicate any correlation between class size and student academic success.
Committee Chairman James Higgins surmised that if 100 teachers were polled about class size, “They would suggest that smaller class size facilitates more effective assessment and assistance to special education students within the class.” He added, “The proof is in the pudding – our schools are ranked Level 1, our results in standardized tests show the benefit of small class size, and the inclusion of special ed in the classroom is a benefit for everyone.”
Donaghue noted the small kindergarten class sizes in 2016 and wondered about the accuracy of the projections for 2017.
Principal Rose Bowman noted that current small kindergarten class size is highly unusual, and her expectation of student enrollment in kindergarten is based on current fall 2017 enrollment and projections from now through the summer. If student needs change, the district will adjust accordingly, Bowman said.
Donaghue was unrelenting in her concern for the changing needs of the town, saying that small class sizes are nice, “But can we afford it? People need to ask the question of whether we are allocating our funding appropriately given our changing demographics.”
Bowman reiterated that there was not an increase in teacher salary budget, but that a teacher was shifted from a Grade 3 class to a kindergarten class, and the only salary increase was a .4 increase for the behavior analyst, which was a change in the school psychologist job description.
White responded to Donaghue’s concerns, noting that he had information that he could not specifically talk about because it related to special ed, “But it could significantly impact our existing classrooms. You’re a numbers person; I need to look at the human side.”
Muse added, “Our job is to look at the needs of the school, and we have had pretty accurate projections, shifting staff without adding personnel.” He noted that Mattapoisett is fortunate to have a school staff that has the flexibility to move from one expertise to another.
Committee member Carter Hunt concluded the public hearing with praise for the district staff. “We have to trust that they have done their due diligence for the needs of the classroom and to keep our schools in a position that we can be proud of.”
Later in the meeting, Higgins summarized the sentiment of the committee: “Education doesn’t cost, it pays.”
In other business, Bowman reported that the MCAS testing is starting and Associate Principal Kevin Tavares is assisting the students. Most of the testing is being done online, except for Grade 5 science, which is still done with pencil and paper.
The next scheduled meeting of the Mattapoisett School Committee is May 15 at 7:00 pm. A Mattapoisett School Committee School Choice Hearing will be held at 6:30 pm the same evening.
By Sarah French Storer