The Dracut Public Schools district is preparing to present its needs to the town’s Finance Committee. We will prepare two budgets — one with a higher cost and one with a lower cost attached to it.
In the lower-cost budget, we will ask for an increase of $500,000. In the higher one, we will ask for $500,000 more than that. These requests are far below the district’s need for an increase of $3 million. Nevertheless, the district recognizes that getting either a half-million dollars or a million in increased funding is unlikely.
Town Manager Dennis Piendak has indicated the town may be able to allocate $200,000 in additional funds for the district. While his support for education is unquestioned, he faces challenging constraints. In addition to paying for Dracut Public Schools, the town’s overall educational costs this year included paying $602,000 for Charter Schools, $103,000 for School Choice, $3,300,000 for Greater Lowell Vocational Technical High School and almost $50,000 for students to attend Essex Aggie. These costs may all increase next year while the town continues to struggle with a low commercial tax base and the lowest tax rate in our region.
The state will require that Dracut spend $866,000 more than last year and will provide perhaps more than $370,000 in additional state funds to help. This will require that Dracut spend almost $497,000 more of its own monies to reach the state’s mandated target for spending on education.
Overspending is not the culprit. Our cost increases are staggering and the state’s funding formula, which needs an overhaul, does not provide for rising costs.
Dracut’s commitment to its children and education is not in question. The town rejoices when the children excel in academics, arts and sports. In FY10, Dracut spent $9,876 per student compared to the state average of $13,055. In FY11, Dracut spent $10,170 per student compared to the state average of $13,371.
The gap among school districts in Massachusetts gets wider every year. Even if we argue, as some will, that we are not those other towns, imagine what we could do with two or three million dollars more per year. There would be no crisis in educational spending or at least the district would face a more manageable future.
Our budget is 80 percent personnel and any reduction in the budget will means cutting staff. We risk losing some of our most talented instructors and leaders. The math is simple: $3 million in cuts would mean a $2.4 million dollar cut in personnel or about 60 people at an average of $40,000 per person.
Last year, we cut administrative and leadership positions, and paraprofessionals and classroom teachers. We cut supplies, and professional development activities, money for substitute teachers and much more. As we approach another season of level funding, we have to ask ourselves, what is left to cut? Level funding is equivalent to a reduction because of cost increases we cannot control, like health care and tuitions.
Many of our departments are spending at a fraction of the rate they spent five years ago, often less than half. Schools that cut supplies for printing and paper by 10 percent last year cannot imagine another year at that level. We begged, borrowed and all but stole to get through this year. We recalled a half dozen staff because we could not do without them. The $300,000 this recall cost was a major challenge to find in the budget but I would not have wanted to go through the year without these staff members.
Now, the staff is nervous because it is clear we will have a major reduction in force. Without a funding increase, we will lose teachers, counselors, a nurse, a senior administrator, secretaries, custodians, coaches, supervisors and building administrators.
At the elementary level, cuts will bring about the loss of paraprofessionals and teachers of reading, arts and physical education. We wish to avoid increases in class size at the elementary level. By cutting specialty areas to fewer contact hours per week, we can spread the remaining staff and ensure that students at least have access to some of these specials each week.
The lack of administrative support is felt every day at the elementary level but we will be cutting this back even further. Paraprofessionals will not be provided to classrooms unless they are serving the needs of Special Education students. After a year of parents expressing vociferously the importance of paraprofessionals in kindergarten, it is difficult to imagine that we cannot afford continuing paraprofessional support at this level next year.
At the Englesby Intermediate and Lakeview Junior High schools, almost all teachers have their own classroom. The arts, music and gym classes provide for the planning times of the classroom teachers and create robust, balanced curriculum. Even here, there will be trade-offs to maintain the current levels of support in the office, libraries and computer rooms.
Prior cuts at Lakeview Junior High have crippled its schedule. Its current staffing does not accommodate the necessary number of classes due to a lack of English and mathematics. The devastating result is that a lot of valuable student learning time is wasted. To fix this, an option such as the elimination of all foreign language classes will be necessary.
The high school continues to produce impressive and positive results in the midst of tough times. They have worked almost miraculously to create proficient student performance results on the MCAS. The NEASC report called for increased spending in several areas, including teaching and student support. Warnings or a one-year probationary status are possible if the high school fails to respond to the recommendations in the accreditation report.
Given the cuts expected in staffing and other programming areas, it is likely that there will be serious repercussions when these cuts are reported as mandated within 60 days of significant changes in conditions.
Cuts at the high school are likely to include major adjustments outside the classroom, such as in Guidance and Nursing. In the classroom, almost every department will feel the pinch. After being awarded distinction as the Massachusetts school district with the fastest growing Advanced Placement program, it will be almost embarrassing to have to take steps backward in this area.
Losing teachers in core subjects will be painful. We already do not have the ability to require a graduation standard typical for most four-year private colleges. Our most highly motivated students will likely thrive in spite of limited options but they will have fewer electives and educational opportunities. Students who have less success in class and need more support will be increasingly at risk.
Our teachers will likely continue to bring phenomenal talent, commitment and effort to the classroom. But they also will feel a dramatic vote of no confidence in the loss of support, services, coverage and resources. Much of the district’s success depends upon sheer will of the staff to make things work. It is important not to break that will or take their dedication for granted. It will be hard to ask staff to pick up the slack when they feel unappreciated and unsupported.
Even in the midst of cuts, so much that is positive is on the horizon. A recent conference on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) addressed our need for more support in applied science. We were able to begin planning a field trip for our students to see their work up close this spring, to identify speakers on technology for teachers and to create a partnership to integrate technology into more subjects and classrooms both now and next year. Recent grants we received this spring will help us do more training as we prepare for next year.
The first Chinese language teacher may start in the fall, courtesy of the U.S. Department of State. New information management and email systems are being launched and will increase our capacity to communicate and use technology in classrooms. Online learning opportunities will increase Dracut’s course selections and help bring Dracut up to current standards of learning. Finally, the high school renovation will bring new and better equipped classrooms in as few as 16 months. Great things are happening.
As we work to close this year with a balanced budget, we will carefully prepare an FY13 budget that will also balance next year. However, I do not want the creation of a balanced budget to create the illusion that everything is all right. I hope we can engage in dialogue about the impact of these changes now. The outcry next year will be greater if the changes come as a surprise. One thing I have learned is that Dracut can manage anything if the challenge is handled with a united front and full transparency.
Dr. Stacy Scott is the Superintendent of Schools for Dracut.