At the same time, the district has pledged to factor in the outpouring of parent and teacher comments and concerns into a revised budget proposal the board will receive April 9 and vote on April 16. The board meets next March 19.
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Possible administrative cuts and a revision to an unpopular plan to cut 20 librarians, technology facilitators and learning coaches will be “part of the conversation,” according to Mike Nicholson, deputy district superintendent.
Almost half of the 300-plus commenters on the district’s draft plan to cut $3.2 million from its annual budget suggested that administrative salaries or benefits be cut instead of those proposed, and more than one hundred opposed the library/technology cuts.
(See a district analysis of the comments in the PDF tab above.)
“It's the administrators everyone is throwing mud at," remarked Westbrook PTA member Marsha King, at a meeting last week where officers from various PTAs and district administrators word-smithed a new “broad brush” community values survey.
The idea behind the survey is to get parents and teachers talking about what they value and want to preserve or try to move towards rather than focusing on specific cuts.
Administrators can be an 'easy target'
Administrators are always an easy target in budget discussions, Supt. Gerald Hill said in an interview, because both their faces and their roles are less familiar to parents.
“People have less contact with administrators than they do teachers and it’s sort of mysterious what we do,” Hill said.
“You can identify with your child’s teacher, and probably the principal, too, but anybody beyond that, (people tend to think) ‘Who are they and what do they do? Is that a needless expense?’”
Because of all the outcry about administrative salaries and benefits, the district is in the process of pulling together benchmarking information it plans to make public showing how Dist. 34 administrative costs and salaries compare with districts of similar size, diversity and quality, Hill said.
West Northfield Dist. 31, which is in the midst of its own budget crisis, recently compiled statistics showing Dist. 34 has the highest administrator to student ratio (1:121) and the lowest per-student administrative costs ($769) of six area districts.
Hill said, to be fair, the other districts on the list are smaller than Dist. 34 and it’s not surprising they are less efficient, given the difference in scale.
He said North Shore Dist. 112, which is of similar size and demographics is a good comparison. According to information provided by Dist. 112, its administrative budget is about 9.8 percent of its salary budget, while Dist. 34 spends about 9 percent of its salary budget on administrators, according to Hill.
Unlike Dist. 31, which is in desperate need of a public referendum bailout, Dist. 34 is not in immediate fiscal danger.
Shifting the focus from 'cuts' to 'realignment'
But it is beset by a thorny set of basic financing realities. Unless the board goes before the voters in a referendum, the district is confined to annual property tax funded increases at or below the rate of inflation, which has averaged 2.35 percent over the past five years. At the same time it has been awarding an average seven percent salary and benefit increases. Payroll makes up 77 percent of the district’s budget, setting up a basic structural imbalance.
The district has a savings account for circumstances like this, but by 2016, its reserves will be spent down to thirty percent of its annual budget. Because the district only gets property tax payments twice per year and they are often late, 30 percent in reserve is as low as the board wants to go.
School board President Chris Northwick said the idea behind this budget process was both to deal with the structural deficits and to “realign” resources to help the district move towards its goals, including enhancing differentiated education.
Without new resources coming in, new initiatives will mean making difficult decisions to alter current programs.
She said she’s been surprised and not happy that the public focus has all been on the cuts with little conversation about realignment proposals.
“If we could go back in time, I think there are some things we would have done differently,” she said.
Hoffman music teacher and teachers’ union president Nan Ross-Meridith said she wishes the district had shown its proposed cuts to teachers and gotten their feedback before making them public.
“We have a collaborative process and shared decision-making in this district that we’re really proud of,” Ross-Meridith said.
Going forward, she said a consensus opinion among teachers is that cuts should affect students as little as possible.
“Nobody wants to see any cuts, ideally,” she said. “Our main goal is to keep this away from kids as much as possible.”
Dist. 34 PTA President Patty Marfise-Patt made similar comments.
“It’s too many cuts too fast,” she said. “I understand the district is trying to jump ahead of the eight ball and they don’t want to be dealing with this every year, but people do not want the academic program shortchanged for their students.”
Marfise-Patt said she wishes the board would delay some of the cuts and wait to see if the economic climate becomes more favorable to asking voters to approve a bond referendum.
Hill, the outgoing superintendent, said unless the board makes cuts and improves efficiency and effectiveness to the point the public is satisfied they’ve done all they can, a bond referendum will fail. The last two times Dist. 34 went to voters for a property tax increase, in 2000 and 2001, both failed.
“When it reaches a point when the resources don’t match with the program, there is a community wide conversation to be had about are we going to diminish the quality of our public schools or should we ask for more resources,” Hill said. “That’s when you get the referendum discussion.”
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