EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 14, 2014

SPED, school hiring are biggest concerns

Schools working to narrow $1.3 million deficit

By Dustin Luca

---- — ANDOVER — The School Department is seeking to add almost nine full-time-equivalent positions to its ranks next year — a plan that is bringing calls for more fiscal restraint and reductions in funding.

Superintendent Marinel McGrath presented a $72,185,784 “preliminary” budget to the Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen Wednesday night — which reflects a $3.3 million, or 4.73 percent, increase over the current year’s budget of $68.9 million.

McGrath’s proposal is about $1.28 million higher than Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski’s allotment for the schools next year. Stapczynski budgeted $70,904,452 for the school district.

The new staff positions include teachers, as well as additions to guidance, custodial and human resources.

The current budget, as it exists today, “has the funding for level services, the strategic plan and all of the contractual obligations,” McGrath said Wednesday night. “There is no significant changes or increases. At this time, there are no reductions to programs or services.”

However, selectmen, frustrated by the possibility of more hires in a tough economic climate, voted Monday night to reduce the town manager’s budget for the schools by $400,000. The move widened the gap between McGrath and Stapczynski from $881,332 to $1,281,332.

It was matched by a similar $200,000 reduction to Stapczynski’s budget for town operations, which addressed the town manager’s plan to hire about five positions, according to selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli.

“If you don’t hire those people, you save approximately $600,000,” Vispoli said. “Every time you can save having to hire an FTE (full-time-equivalent), you’re really providing long-term savings. The $600,000 (in reductions) is essentially saying, ‘No new FTEs this year.’”

When presented to the tri-board meeting Wednesday night, the

The School District’s proposed increase in positions from the current 882 to 890 — which includes an additional 15 positions created since taxpayers approved a budget with 867 positions at last May’s Annual Town Meeting — drew the ire of town officials at Wednesday’s tri-board meeting.

“We always have a school budget that’s greater than what we can fund,” Finance Committee member Greg Serrao said. “I think about the world and the big picture. Few places are adding employees. We’ve added 109. Most of them are in (special education).”

Cherrywood Circle resident Bob Pokress centered his frustration on the recently approved teachers’ contract, which provides for a 5.5 percent raise spread out over the next three years.

“What you’ve done is signed a blank check that’s going to cost the town roughly $180 million over the three years of the contract. That is the cause of these budget gaps,” Pokress said. “A self-created crisis is what we now have as a result of this irresponsible action, of rushing a contract that didn’t need to be rushed.”

The district’s special education needs also drew heavy discussion, with comments centering on where the town may be doing too much, and where it may not be doing enough.

Serrao said, according to state figures, Andover is ranked highest in the state for the percentage of its overall budget that’s spent on special education. That puts the town above districts such as Lexington and Brookline, which are of similar size and demographics.

Joyce Laundry, the district’s director of student services, said that was because Lexington and Brookline both also had larger operating budgets, which lowered their percentages dedicated to special education.

Even then, “if we spend $1 in our school budget, how much does that go to special ed?” Serrao said. “We’re well above the average in the commonwealth.”

Parents were quick to respond.

“It’s very clear to me that very few of you actually walk into those halls, and into those classrooms, and see what we’re talking about here — not the numbers and pieces of paper, but children, children we need to educate,” Susan McCready, co-president of the Sanborn Elementary School PTO, said.

“I don’t want my child in a class that has 22 children in it. I know, because I go into that class. I volunteer my time to help.”

Rick Livingstone of Lovejoy Road had a harsher comment for those frustrated with the budget’s size. He pointed to what he believes is evidence that the elementary school system is failing the town’s children, saying the deficiencies in education start showing up around the sixth grade.

“My kids came back with their progress report, so I had them independently tested. My tenth-grader is three levels behind, proficiency and acumen,” Livingstone said. “I tested my other two kids. They’re two grade levels behind in math and reading.”

The budget is slated to go before the public again at a budget hearing on Thursday, March 27 at 7 p.m. The hearing will be held at the School Committee’s meeting room on the second floor of the School Administration Building, located above the Senior Center on Whittier Court.

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