LOWELL -- School Committee members chided Superintendent of Schools Jean Franco Monday night for the $1.5 million in fiscal 2015 budget cuts she proposed to cover anticipated collective-bargaining agreement expenses, as the committee continued its ongoing series of public budget hearings.
"I would like to state for the record that I do not feel it is in the best interest of our school system or educational program to consider these reductions at this time given additional funds will be available for appropriation to the School Committee in the coming weeks and those funds may be set aside for collective bargaining purposes if that is the desire of the committee," Franco wrote in a June 13 memo to the committee.
Franco said she took several things into account, including the district's net school spending shortfall that must be resolved in the fiscal 2015 budget, anticipated collective-bargaining agreement expenses, and increased special-education costs. Her projections conclude that the city will remain about $2.6 million short of meeting its carry-over accumulated net school spending from fiscal years 2012 through 2014. That shortfall will carry over into fiscal 2015 and be certified by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education this fall.
Franco's memo indicates that City Manager Kevin Murphy "has pledged to work with the school administration to eliminate the certified shortfall in as short a timeframe as possible.
The state Legislature earlier this month approved a supplemental budget appropriation to fully fund the charter-school reimbursement program for the current fiscal year, according to Franco's memo, which adds that the city is projected to receive $1.38 million in additional charter school reimbursement at the end of this fiscal year.
Franco provided the committee with a top tier of $266,598 in proposed budget-cut proposals and an additional $1,240,395 in second-tier cuts, or $1,506,393 in total cuts.
Franco's proposed tier-one cuts involved eliminating two special-education teacher and six special-education paraprofessional positions from the Rogers Early Learning Center and Bartlett Community Partnership School. Those met with unanimous approval from the School Committee.
However, her second-tier cuts included the elimination of teacher positions across the district, which drew widespread criticism from the committee. In its motion to approve the tier-one cuts, the committee also voted to eliminate the $1.24 million in second-tier cuts from the budget discussion.
"I was a little surprised when I saw the cuts," Committee member David Conway said. "When I took a look at this, I found it to be, quite frankly, irresponsible that the first place and only place we're looking at are jobs that affected the classroom. I found that to be very disturbing, taking into consideration that we're in here to educate our students. Needless to say, what affects our students more than anything else is what goes on in the classroom. Everyone else is a support for what goes on in the classroom. When I see the superintendent's office and her team come in with recommendations that really disrupt those classrooms, I find it very unprofessional to be honest with you."
Committee member Jim Leary added, "I don't believe we should cut from the schools. We just went through devastating cuts a couple of years ago. I don't want to cut from classrooms as we're starting to show progress."
Committee member Connie Martin said, "When I looked at this Tier 2 list, I felt it was an exercise that was like a game of chicken, 'I dare you to make these cuts,' which I thought was disingenuous and problematic when we're dealing with budget concerns. I do think it's important to realize that individuals in these positions may be able to switch positions (as Franco said earlier in the meeting) but it does negate an actual (full-time equivalent) doing the work in the classroom. While individuals may not be affected, the work being done in the classroom would be."
Mayor Rodney Elliott said, "I agree with some of my colleagues that this was somewhat of a waste of time. If the first place you're going (to cut) is the classroom, it's a huge mistake."
The committee then voted unanimously to defer discussion of the tier one cuts until it deliberated the special-education section of the budget.
"As you are aware, much work has been involved this past year with the previously discussed special-education program alignment at the elementary and middle school levels of the district," Franco wrote in her memo. "After hearing many of your concerns regarding the full implementation of the realignment this fall, district staff has reassessed the plan and we are now implementing a two-year rollout. The minimized year one implementation of the realignment involves a total of eight teaching staff and less than 40 students district-wide."
The School Committee will discuss the special-education budget at its meeting on Wednesday night.