By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Facing a nearly $1 million gap between its Fiscal Year 2014 school budget and the funding allocated under the City Council’s municipal budget, the School Committee was forced to bite the bullet and make numerous painful decisions that will affect every student, parent and department within the school system.
Last night the School Committee unanimously, but reluctantly, approved its updated FY14 school budget that falls within the $27,348,496 amount set by the City Council during its budget hearings last week and includes cuts to nearly every school department and sizable increases in student fees.
The budget represents a $915,000 increase over last year’s budget, but is also half of the $1.8 million initially approved by the committee and significantly less than the $1.5 million needed to maintain the current programs and employees.
In order to close that $971,119 gap, the School Committee utilized every tool at its disposal, even though none of them was appealing.
Starting next year, athletic fees will increase from $250 to $325 per sport, $60 to $80 per co-curricular and $810 to $1,055 per family, roughly a 30 percent increase.
Transportation fees will increase from $300 to $360 per child and $450 to $540 for two or more, roughly a 20 percent increase. There will also be an increase in the family cap and no early bonus, at least for this upcoming year.
Finally, pre-kindergarten tuition will increase from $2,430 to $3,000, roughly a 25 percent increase.
Assistant Superintendent Deirdre Farrell estimated that the new revenues brought in by these fee increases would raise an additional $85,000 for the schools. The remaining $886,119 gap between the School Committee’s budget and the City Council’s appropriation would have to be filled by cuts, she said.
The resulting cuts were widespread and will affect nearly every department in every school within the district. Probably the toughest cut, however, was the loss of the new third-grade teacher position at Amesbury Elementary.
Officials had made adding a new third-grade teacher a major priority, and without it AES class sizes will rise to 28 to 29 students per class from 21 per class. The school will also lose a special education teacher who received a layoff notice earlier this month.
Cashman Elementary will also see its second-grade and kindergarten class sizes grow after additional new teacher positions had to be cut. The result will be second-grade class sizes of 25 to 26 students per class in classrooms designed for a maximum of 24, and projected kindergarten class sizes of 23 to 25 students per class.
At the high school, officials had hoped to re-establish a full-time band teacher, but ultimately decided that maintaining the existing 0.2 band teacher situation for another year would be the best use of school funds.
“It’s not the lack of interest, but because of what is expected of graduation requirements from the state and from us,” said AHS Principal Roy Hamond. “They’re taking so many other courses at that college prep level that the music classes are not the ones they’re signing up for. So how can I justify a five-person guitar class when I have a 30-person math class?”
The high school will also be losing a special education teacher, a library assistant and two paraprofessionals.
The biggest cut for the middle school will be the in-school suspension tutor that officials hoped would allow students to remain in a productive learning environment while on suspension. The school will also suffer roughly $50,000 in cuts to supplies, textbooks, professional development and clerical work as well.
The Central Office will be absorbing numerous cuts as well, the most noteworthy being the facilities manager ($50,000), teacher leaders ($75,000) and the out-of-district special education coordinator ($85,000).
There were talks to cut the attendance officer position from the budget as well, but the School Committee decided that losing the ability to properly track student residency and combat chronic absenteeism was too big a loss to bear, so the $17,000 budgeted for that position will need to be cut elsewhere in the Central Office.
Despite all the cuts, there was still a significant gap, and in order to balance the budget the School Committee decided to cut $49,199 from the AHS heating budget. Farrell also estimates that the schools could save somewhere around $30,000 on health insurance as a result of the layoffs.
Just prior to the vote, the School Committee members each expressed their disappointment with how the budget turned out, and Stanley Schwartz said he believes the process was a failure on many levels and the committee should make a point to conduct it more effectively next year.
“They, the faculty and the administration, deserve better. We should not be coming up with a final budget on the second to last day of school,” Schwartz said. “We’ve got neighbor pitted against neighbor, SPED pitted against regular education, the school pitted against other city departments. This should never have happened.”