NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

June 20, 2013

In Amesbury, schools face layoffs

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — Due to the late date of Tuesday’s public hearing on the municipal budget, the Amesbury Public Schools have already been forced to lay off several employees, and given the amount of funds that were approved, more painful cuts could be imminent.

On Tuesday night, the City Council approved a new $59 million budget for the upcoming year that allocated $27,348,496 to the schools. While that figure represented a $915,000 increase over last year, it was still only half of the $1.8 million requested by the School Committee and far less than the $1.5 million needed to maintain the current programs and employees.

But the vote’s result wasn’t the only problem for the schools — the timing was as well. Deb LaValley, vice chair of the School Committee, said the public hearing on the city budget is usually held earlier in the month, but since this year it wound up falling after their June 15 deadline to send out pink slips, the schools were forced to lay some people off as a precaution.

Superintendent Michele Robinson said roughly four to six individuals have received their notices, but added that since the notices were sent out before the council approved the $115,000 increase over Mayor Thatcher Kezer’s requested $800,000 increase in spending, some of the laid-off employees could be brought back if the School Committee chooses to use the additional funds that way.

“Anything is possible,” she said. “We don’t know at this point; that’s the work that has to be done at that budget workshop with that extra appropriation.”

The problem is that there is still a $600,000 gap between the school’s level-services budget and the budget approved by the council. That is a source of great concern within the schools, which will now be forced to make cuts in order to stay within their new budget.

Robinson said it will be up to the School Committee to determine how that money gets spent at its next meeting on June 24, and at this point it’s too early to speculate what cuts could be coming.

“The next step is to continue with the budget development, taking the final vote and then working with the School Committee to determine how we will move forward,” she said.

Even before the council’s vote, there was already a great deal of concern over high-level classes at AHS being cut from the schedule, presumably for budgetary reasons. Several people raised such concerns during the City Council meeting, including one woman who spoke at length about how her daughter’s Level 5 Spanish class was being dropped, and a junior who said she is aware of at least four other classes that have already been cut.

Despite the concerns, Robinson reiterated that no specific cuts have been settled on at this point. She also disputed the notion that classes were being cut for budgetary reasons, explaining that the cuts were more likely a result of low registration numbers.

“I would say that’s one of the major elements of it. There was a class that was mentioned last night and I know at this point that was a numbers issue, not a funding issue,” Robinson said, referring to the Level 5 Spanish class. “It’s preliminary, the school year hasn’t ended yet and we’re basing the schedule on the pre-registration and the interest in the classes next year.”

The reason why the schools are in their current position is primarily because the costs to maintain the same level of service compared to last year have skyrocketed due to increases in the cost of special education and contractually obligated pay increases. The City Council pointed out that even if money were no object and there was a willingness to do so, Proposition 2 1/2 limits the amount of money that can be raised in taxes on a year-to-year basis, so the council wouldn’t have been able to fully fund the schools no matter what.

The schools are also grappling with a variety of unfunded state and federal mandates that leave less money in the budget for other things. City councilors railed against such mandates on Tuesday, and LaValley urged school supporters to come together and try to make a statement to legislators that the mandates are hurting the schools.

“The important fact is all the communities need to unify and get the same message to our federal and state officials about all these unfunded mandates,” she said. “Because I’ve had frustrations from parents who say they write and they don’t feel like they’re being heard.”