NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 22, 2013

Schools seek spending increase

School board girds for fight over money

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY – The School Committee will seek roughly $2.3 million in spending increases for the upcoming school year to keep up with a rising student population and steep increases in special education costs.

Specifically, the committee wants to add new teachers to help bring down class sizes, hire a full time band teacher and bring on additional assistants, counselors and paraprofessionals on top of the $1.506 million needed in order to maintain the current level of service and keep up with rising special education costs.

The School Committee unveiled its new $28 million budget during its meeting last night, and it is expected to vote on the budget on April 2.

Following the presentation of the budget, numerous parents and teachers spoke up in support of the budget increases, and the overwhelming sentiment was that class sizes were growing too high, particularly at the third grade level.

“These aren’t additional needs, they are primary needs,” said Elaine Bucher, a local resident who teaches in another district. “These are things that need to be funded so our students become well-rounded individuals.”

Among the new increases being requested are four to six new teachers in the high school, new special education classrooms at the high school and middle school, a new third grade teacher at the Amesbury Elementary School, a new literary paraprofessional at the Cashman school, a new full-time band teacher at the high school and an out of district and programmatic special education facilitator, among other things.

If all of the new budget increases were to be approved they would add up to $751,200 to $865,000. The remaining $1.506 million being sought would be to maintain the school’s current level of service, and nearly half of that increase can be directly attributed to special education.

Between the two elementary schools, the middle school, the high school and district-wide costs, Amesbury will see a $685,311 increase in total SPED costs, good for 46 percent of the total level service increase. The remaining $820,870 in increases was driven by a variety of other things, but mostly by contractually obligated teacher salary increases, employee health care and district benefits.

Within the individual school budgets, special education costs were the dominant factor in the level service increases. All four schools could attribute at least a quarter of their level service increases to SPED salaries, and three could point to more than half.

Cashman Elementary was the most glaring example. Out of a total level service increase of $127,092, $120,995 of that was a result of SPED teaching salary increases.

The school that could have the biggest overall budget increase is the Amesbury High School, which could see an increase of $369,077, or 9.66 percent over last year. That doesn’t include an additional $14,460 increase in the athletics budget, which is up 5.53 percent.

The only area that is slated to decrease this year is curriculum spending, which would only go down by $2,291 to $303,233, constituting a 0.75 percent budget decrease.

While some of the increases may seem unpalatable to the many residents who have expressed dismay about the tax rate at recent city council meetings, those in attendance argued that by not at least maintaining the current level of service, the city would be letting its children down.

“I appreciate that you run this like a school and not a business and that we’re here for the children,” said John Lyman, a science teacher at AMS. “We’ve gone through multiple years of level funding, and that doesn’t necessarily carry the services that the children need from year to year. A lot of the items we’re dealing with are mandate driven, safety driven and there’s no fluff there.”

Tim Angerhofer, who teaches math at AHS, followed on that by describing the school budget as a “human balance sheet” that dealt with things much bigger than numbers on a piece of paper, and he argued that allowing the existing school workforce to become overburdened would be a costly mistake.

“We’ve seen a lot of increases in the workload, from the polling, legislation, data collection and reporting, expansion of MCAS, reporting out school improvement plans and evaluations, meanwhile during that time our staffing has decreased,” Angerhofer said. “Under that kind of environment the education will get compromised, and children will bare the brunt of it”

After the audience was finished making its comments, the School Committee members thanked everyone for coming but cautioned that it would be a difficult proposition to get all the increases they want approved by the City Council.

“Our list was much larger than this, but given the current economic climate, we were forced to narrow our list down,” said committee member Gale Hanshaw.

Aware that the political climate in Amesbury right now is against budget increases of any kind, committee member Stanley Schwartz closed the public hearing by urging those in attendance to call their city councilors and legislators, and offered some fighting words to those who would prefer to shut their door, complain about taxes and then complain again when the fire department takes too long to get to their house.

“They can’t have their cake and eat it too,” Schwartz said. “So which community is it? The community you see here? Or a community that shuts its door and says ‘let me go read my Ayn Rand book, leave me alone, don’t bother me with the taxes and go fix my street.’”