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North Adams School Budget Up 2%; Cuts Dozen Positions

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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The School Committee's finance subcommittee reviews the fiscal 2018 budget on Tuesday.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Committee will vote next week on a fiscal 2018 budget that's up about 2 percent over this year and includes reductions in positions, including the assistant principal at the high school.

The finance subcommittee on Tuesday recommended a total budget of $17,079,082, up $334,884. The budget takes into account enrollment and consolidations to reduce positions and is offset by $250,000 from the school choice account, as it was this year.

Superintendent Barbara Malkas said the budget was developed around three budget priorities "that defined where we would be allocating our resources."

First was the grade reconfiguration — moving Grade 7 to Drury High School and prekindergarten to the elementary schools — that allowed for consolidation and changes in the number of teachers. The second was using data to inform where resources could best be used and allowing for budget liabilities, such as cost increases and Chapter 70 education funding that is not keeping pace with real costs.

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the school district's highest cost centers per pupil are classroom and specialist teachers (30.65 percent) and insurance/retirement (18.36 percent).

Teaching services is up just over 2 percent, or $235,682 over this year, even with the reductions.

"When we start to look at how we mitigate rising need with decreasing revenue, there's really only one way to do that," Malkas said. "That is through in looking at very detailed way at your personnel and how you're deploying your personnel."

The reductions are six full-time equivalent teaching positions, three FTE math coaches and nine FTE teaching assistants; that's offset by a new position in prekindergarten to offer a sixth class, two positions for the middle grades and three early childhood registered behavior technicians.

"We had six teachers retire this year, announce their retirement ... so we were able to backfill a lot," said Malkas, adding "we were able to mitigate most of these reductions so it was actually only two positions that received this reduction in force."

Several personnel also were not renewed because they were not currently licensed.

Of the nine targeted teaching assistant positions, two were currently vacant. And one of the retirements was the full-time service-learning coordinator, Malkas said, "we've negotiated that as a separate stipend for a teacher to have as part of the new contract."

This is Malkas' first budget as superintendent and she felt it was necessary to delve deeper into the district's budget to better understand the district's needs.

"We really wanted to do a full overview of all of our existing resources both in terms of personnel and of the line items we were looking at with respect to allocations around technology, technology-based supports, and make sure we were allocating our resources in ways that allowed for districtwide implementation of initiatives," she said.

That included addressing behavioral issues at earlier ages and work toward ways to ensure they were in the classrooms learning the curriculum without the need of special supports. The three behavior technicians will be working with the prekindergarten at first.

"How do we develop the social-emotional skills of those very young students so we can move them into a more inclusive model?" Malkas said, rather than defining children by programs. "Let's create a model for this program at the youngest grade and if it's successful, scale up."

The math coaches are being reduced because they were not direct instructional and weren't showing enough results.

"It's not that we don't value those positions, we do value them, but they are non-instructional positions and the math coaching model we were using wasn't allowing us to see the kind of improvement we were hoping for," Malkas said. While there were "pockets of excellence," she continued, "It wasn't sufficient to raise to really raise those mathematics scores in a systemic way."

Instead, the School Department will invest in grade-related electronic comprehensive systems for math and English that "will provide immediate feedback." It will also prepare students for doing online assessments.

In particular, she said, "we're going to try to personalize learning in mathematics at the younger grades where it's mostly about skills development and application."

With the development of a middle school model again at Drury, it was necessary to add a certified math teacher and a special education coordinator because the caseload is higher in those grades.

Malkas said her decision to eliminate the assistant high principal post was based on her conversations with other superintendents on administrator ratios. Drury High School currently has an interim principal, Timothy Callahan, and an interim assistant principal.

The department's third highest cost center is out-of-district education, largely students who may require special services but also those who attend vocational schools out of the area.

North Adams is in talks with other school districts to develop a North County collaborative to educate some of these students.

"It may not the percent of the numbers of students who are receiving service ... but it would be at a substantially less cost that what we are currently paying now," Malkas said.

Business Manager Nancy Ziter said the budget also takes into account funding toward replacing the department's fleet of vans on a rotating basis and an increase in the third year of the lease for central office. There are savings in heating, utilities, and maintenance based on the closure of Johnson School, which will be returned to the city.

The use of $250,000 in school-choice funds for next year should leave a balance of $967,000 for fiscal 2019.

"School choice is our only buffer, it's are only reserve we have," Ziter said. "And you should have at least a 5 percent reserve bare minimum in case something happens and you need to use it."

What school officials are worried about is the failure of state funding to keep pace with current costs. The state's education reform of the 1990s set standards for school spending but has not been updated to take into account the dramatic increases in health insurance premiums and other costs. Talk of cuts at the federal level is also making worrying, they said, particularly the American Health Care Act of 2017 recently passed by U.S. House.

"Many people don't realize it's the local public education agency that provides services for students of significant need, who require speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy," Malkas said. "We provide all of those services in district and they are Medicaid reimbursable. If AHCA becomes law of the land, then that could impact our Medicaid reimbursement to the city, which in turn affects what the city can return to the school department."

A lot of the grants the school department receives through the state are actually federal monies, she said, and cuts could impact the free breakfast and lunch program, Title 1 and 21st Century Learning.

The School Committee will hold a public hearing on the budget on Tuesday, May 23, at 6 p.m at central office.

"We're in a good place to keep making progress but also meet the requirements for our budget," Malkas said.

Tags: fiscal 2018,   north adams_budget,   school budget,   

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