With the possibility of staff layoffs at several Tri-Town schools, teachers and parents are in a cloud of uncertainty as to how their schools will look next year.
The ORR school district budget season has been exceptionally tough this year due to stagnating state aid, dried up federal dollars, increases in staff contractual obligations/health care costs, higher special education expenses, and more students opting to attend out-of-district vocational schools.
Preliminary budgets at Tri-Town schools have put many positions on the chopping block, but Superintendent Doug White is quick to say that budgets may change before they are presented at public hearings in March. And even then the finalized state budget can change it again before local school budgets are voted on at annual town meetings in May.
“Not a single position has been eliminated at this time,” Superintendent White stressed, acknowledging that “panic” can set in when jobs are on the line. “We are only talking about scenarios of what would happen if revenues are not available,” he said.
“There have been no pink slips,” Mr. White emphasized.
He did say school officials have notified certain staff at all Tri-Town schools – with the exception of Mattapoisett’s elementary schools – that their jobs may be eliminated or significantly changed.
At ORR Junior High and High School, school officials have spoken with 18 individuals whose jobs may be altered (ie. involuntary transfer – moving from high school to junior high position) or cut. $495,000 in additional dollars is needed in ORR’s budget to maintain the same level of services as next school year. Mr. White said at the February 8 ORR school committee meeting that $221,000 in health insurance increases and $81,000 in increases for contractual obligations for custodial and secretarial employees accounts for some of the added strain on the budget.
Some of the cuts at ORR proposed so far include five professional teaching positions, seven paraprofessional positions (instructional assistants), a librarian and custodial staff. Also, the budget would remove one of ORR’s two nurses and replace that staffmember with a certified nursing assistant.
Hints at layoffs are worrying teachers at the schools, although they continue to do what they always do: their jobs, according to ORR teacher and Old Rochester Professional Educators Association (ORPEA) Co-President Terry Dall.
“There is a day-to-day damper on morale. People are worried about their departments, worried about staffmembers that may be gone, and that programs will somewhat be diminished because of staff [cuts],” she said. But Ms. Dall stressed that the issue of possible layoffs – as well as stalled contract negotiations between the school committee and the teachers’ union – stays out of the classroom.
“Most teachers are trying to stay positive day to day, really things have not changed at all in the classroom. It’s not something we talk to our students about,” Ms. Dall said.
“Obviously there is a great deal of concern about these potential substantive impacts on programs,” said ORR teacher and ORPEA Co-President Colin Everett. “We’ve managed most of the cuts to attrition in the past decade, but the school committee has not capitalized on savings as best as they could have.”
Mr. Everett added that he strongly advocates using the district’s E&D account – money set aside for emergencies – for restoring the operating budget. He noted that some one-time federal funds were put in that account, so he said it is appropriate to use towards the budget as long as the account remains in excess.
“If they are saying E&D is for a rainy day, increased class sizes and decreased electives is our rainy day… E&D should help cover the operating costs,” he said.
Both Mr. Everett and Ms. Dall expressed concern about the nursing staff changes under consideration in the preliminary budget, with Mr. Everett saying it raises “serious concerns about school health and safety.” Currently two registered nurses (RNs) oversee both ORR Junior High and High School; under the latest budget one nurse would be replaced with a certified nursing assistant. The move would save the district $25,350.
ORR Nurse Kim Corrazzini, who said she has been spoken to about the possibility of losing her job, said the prospect of one registered nurse overseeing the 1,150 student population at both the junior high and high school is worrisome.
“From my point of view, it’s important for people to understand that school nursing isn’t what it used to be. There is a lot that goes on everyday… We have a lot of children with chronic medical needs, seizure disorders, life threatening allergies, asthmatics,” she said, estimating that she sees about 35-50 students per day.
“It’s like a mini-emergency room or clinic. For example, last week I called 911, I [treated] a pretty acute injury from a gym accident and an allergic reaction – this on top of everyday stuff and kids with chronic illness,” she said.
Although Ms. Corrazzini said that certified nursing assistants are “valuable” – she said they are not trained to do assessments, and any decisions they make are under the RN’s license. She added that the MA Department of Public Health recommends one FT RN nurse for every 250-400 students or at most 500 students. Above 500 students, there should be .1 nurse for every 50 kids – which equates to about 2.5 RNs for the whole student body, she said.
“And this is not taking into account the medical needs of the special needs population. They are talking about regular education kids,” she said.
“All cuts are devastating, but it is important for kids to be put in the foreground. Everything that happens should impact them the least. Personally, health and safety in a huge thing,” Ms. Corrazzini added.
At Rochester Memorial School, where an extra $435,000 is required to maintain a level-service budget, the preliminary budget proposal presented on February 2 calls for: the elimination of four professional teaching staff, six fewer paraprofessionals, reduced technology assistance, and the elimination of one bus – among other things. The cuts would increase class size to as high as 26 to 27 students per class in the upper grades if pushed forward as currently presented.
More Rochester students attending Bristol Aggie, higher utility costs to run the building expansion, higher special education costs and contractual/health care increases are the main squeezers on the budget.
One teacher, who did not want to comment on the issue, would only say, “It has hit everybody.” Some residents have not been so shy, with two submitting letters to the Wanderer this week expressing concern about the reduced number of instructional assistants and the loss of the science lab program.
“These are programs and activities that will personally affect my child and many others as well. My daughter has a passion for Science and Music. She loves her teachers. What a tragic loss for all of the students if they had to lose even one of these educators or educational outlets,” wrote third grade parent Stacy Carreau on the potential impacts of the cuts.
Meanwhile, Sippican School also is coping with a tougher financial climate. Currently the budget subcommittee is working to shed $215,000 in expenses at the request of the town.
Superintendent Doug White confirmed that some Sippican staff has been spoken to about the potential for cuts/changes in their positions.
Sippican Teacher Stacey Soucey said the mood among teachers at Marion’s elementary school is mainly “uncertainty.”
“We are uncertain because we don’t know what it’ll mean yet. We all just waiting to see what will happen, a lot can happen so you can never know,” she said.
For more information on the budget public hearings, visit www.orr.mec.edu.
By Laura Fedak Pedulli