Recommended School Budget Calls for 2% Increase
Superintendent John Antonucci's recommended budget comes after several years of a 0% increase.
Editor's Note: This story is part of a nationwide Patch series probing the economy's effect on local schools.
It was a packed house when the Westwood School Committee gathered Thursday night for the first reading of Superintendent John Antonucci’s recommended Fiscal Year 2012 budget.
Antonucci's budget request is for $33,697,419, a 2-percent increase of $660,733 over FY '11.
It was the first time the School Committee had seen the budget, which was presented by Antonucci, Director of Student Services Audrey Seyffert, Thurston Middle School Principal Allison Borchers, and High School Principal Emily Parks.
Salaries and Special Education costs, like many schools around the Commonwealth, are major components of the budget, along with the need for a Dean of Students at Westwood High School.
Antonucci offered a number of highlights from the budget, which included the 2 percent increase and a mention that there are no recommended cuts to programs or services. He also noted the level-funded non-salary accounts, requests for additional staff at the high school and middle school, as well as Special Education with offset decreases to the non-salary accounts.
Antonucci requested to eliminate the turnover account and Medicaid, which he considers to be unreliable revenue offsets. He explained that the schools get barely any Medicaid anymore, and that the turnover account is just a difficult account to manage.
Referring to it as a “Maintenance Budget,” as it essentially maintains what the school system currently has, Antonucci explained that the budget allows the schools to continue to deliver a high quality education while not exactly moving forward.
“I think we are kind of treading water, and we have been for a few years,” said Antonucci, who was able to avoid cuts through a combination of solid management strategies, as well as some good luck that has allowed Westwood to maintain a strong foundation even during the economic struggle.
He attributed this to negotiating responsible collective bargaining agreements, developing in-house Special Education programs, using one-time federal stimulus funds and Chapter 70 Aid responsibly, implementing energy conservation measures, and participating in cooperative purchasing programs.
He added that it was a strategic effort to reduce and contain the costs, but that Special Education is still a volatile budget driver that can change at any time.
Enrollment issues are top priorities when working with the budget, Antonucci said, noting that at Westwood High School, enrollment has increased by more than 100 students over the last five years.
At Thurston Middle School, enrollment has increased by 60 students since 2009, and 900 students are expected to enroll at Westwood High School, with another 780 at Thurston.
“Adding that many more students to a building will naturally cause us to address some needs,” said Antonucci.
On the other hand, elementary enrollment is stabilizing, though there are still a few high class sizes that need to be worked out. The primary concern, Antonucci said, is the incoming first grade at Martha Jones School, which is projected to hold 24 or 25 students in a class. He also noted that the incoming grades two and three at Sheehan Elementary warrant attention, as both are projected to have 23 students in a class.
To address the needs regarding grade one at Martha Jones, Antonucci explained that there are three grade-five classes graduating this year, and only two incoming kindergarten classes. Because of this, the school department was able to transfer a teacher to the first grade with no impact on the budget. The outcome is having three first-grade classes at the Martha Jones School.
“Because of that shift I recommend just to transfer the extra teacher to grade one,” said Antonucci. “It would address class size and have no budget impact.”
Seyffert then spoke about the Special Education requests, which include the following:
ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS: (FTE=Full Teacher Equivalent)
- 0.2 FTE Psychologist
- 2.0 FTE Instructional Assistants
THURSTON MIDDLE SCHOOL:
- 1.0 FTE Special Educator –Specializing Learning Center teacher
WESTWOOD HIGH SCHOOL:
- 1.0 FTE Special Educator
- 1.0 FTE ABA Tutor
Antonucci noted that the school has added 11.68 FTE since 2008, which has corresponded with a $1,202,586 non-salary decrease during that time. He said the strategy has led to a decrease of $700,000 in the overall Special Education Budget.
Seyffert explained that the overall Special Education Budget for FY ’12 decreased by $83,178. It includes 5.2 FTE positions, offset by non-salary reductions. She also noted that four students are projected to return to in-district programs, and pointed out that the cost of the NECC partner program went from $800,000 to about $250,000.
Also, this year the schools have 33 students in outside placements, but next year school officials anticipate the amount being in the lower 20s. Student reduction is a result of some students graduating and some reaching the age of 22 and couldn’t pass MCAS.
As for the requests to the budget, Seyffert asked for a one day a week equivalent psychologist at the Hanlon School, explaining that 17 percent of the students at the Hanlon School are in Special Education, and that it seemed fitting to ask for this help.
She also asked for 2.0 FTE Instructional Assistants trained in ABA at Deerfield Elementary. Seyffert said that this strengthens capacity to serve students with intensive needs. It also meets the needs of student individualize educational programs as well as addressing enrollment increases. It also allows for return of students from outside placements, which is a key point, she said.
At Thurston Middle School, Seyffert asked for 1.0 FTE Special Education Teacher to staff a new program, which provides a systemic Middle School program. It addresses the influx of five students from the STAR program into sixth grade, as well as fostering a successful transition for identified students. Like many areas in the budget, it also responds to enrollment increases and provides potential return of students from outside placement.
Seyffert and Antonucci stressed that they want students to stay in-house because it is where they belong and where they feel most comfortable. The newly-proposed program will have a focus of social and emotional support. It will serve current grade-five students in the STAR program, and Seyffert said that the goal is to expand in FY '13 to a multi-grade model. The program, she said, will have wrap-around support for students with social or emotional challenge.
At Westwood High School, Seyffert requested 1.0 FTE ABA tutor and 1.0 FTE Special Educator to staff an extended program, due mostly to population increase. The focus of the program expansion will be academic, vocational and daily living skills, and will include work experiences for ages 18 to 22; to introduce the students to a real-world environment and make them feel more independent.
Allison Borchers also spoke regarding new personnel requests at Thurston Middle School. She is requesting a total of 2.5 FTE Core Subject teachers:
- 0.8 FTE Social Studies teacher
- 0.8 FTE Science teacher
- 0.5 FTE English teacher
- 0.4 FTE Math teacher
Likewise, this request is to handle rapidly increasing enrollment. Borchers noted that over the past decade, enrollment at Thurston has increased by 24 percent. However, staffing has not kept up with the pace of the student enrollments, with only an increase of 1.8 percent for Core teachers. In fact, she said only 0.45 FTEs have been added for 145 more students.
Looking ahead, Borchers said that enrollment is projected to continue to grow due to large fourth- and fifth-grade classes. Borchers noted that grade six has 261 students, grade five has 261, and grade four has 266, for a total of 788 students during the 2012-2013 school year.
“When all three grades are in the school at once, we’ll have a pretty energetic place,” said Borchers.
In order to decrease class sizes, sections would be added to grade six and seven. Teachers would be shifted around, and, in some cases, class size would drop as many as four to twelve students.
“We are not in an ideal situation here,” said Borchers. “We are in a situation where we have a problem and we are trying to address it in a way that’s responsible.”
As for the High School, Principal Emily Parks requested 1.0 FTE Foreign Language teacher and 1.0 FTE Dean of Students. She noted that a major budget driver, as for many of the sections, is enrollment. The total population of students will be 920, and, in the fall of 2011, 45 additional students are expected to enroll. The second spike in enrollment will come in the fall of 2013.
As for foreign language, Parks said that there are currently 11 classes with 25 or more students in each. Five of the classes are ninth grade classes, and it would be difficult to absorb the incoming large ninth grade next year. Parks said that there is currently more interest amongst students in Spanish, but she has heard there is a rise of interest in French.
“In an ideal world, I will find a highly-qualified person that speaks both French and Spanish,” she said.
Parks added that the need for a Dean of Students is to help the assistant principal, and said the assistant principal’s responsibilities have changed; thus, bringing in a dean of students would help each position be more involved with students, other than just for disciplinary action. Parks noted that as enrollment increases, the amount of time spent on student issues increases exponentially.
Bringing in a dean, who would work for 10 months, would help both the assistant principal and the students being served. Parks said that the 920 students would be divided between the new dean and the assistant principal.
“The bottom line for me is that it just isn’t possible for an assistant principal to know 920 students well,” said Parks, who was also an assistant principal in Westwood before becoming the high school's principal.
Bringing in a Dean of students would also help create a more positive environment, she said, noting that it would provide a safe positive climate at the high school by getting to know the students better, form positive relationships, provide supervision, act and intervene proactively, pre-empt problems and cultivated shared expectations and a sense of community.
Most schools that have the amount of students enrolled that Westwood currently has usually have two assistant principals or something in the equivalent. For example, neighboring Medfield has about 50 more students than Westwood, but has had two assistant principals or a dean for several years. Holliston, meanwhile, has roughly the same student population and has two assistant principals.
The request, Parks said, is all in spirit of enhancing the school culture.
School Committee member Brian Kelly expressed his approval of the project saying, “I think now, with a 2 percent budget increase, we should strongly consider it.”
Despite speculation that state aid will be cut statewide, Superintendent Antonucci expressed optimism that Westwood would be spared, due to what he calls a basic formula.
He gave last year as a prime example, when districts were cut by 4 percent while Westwood increased by $279,000, or 8.5 percent. Regardless of what happens, Antonucci stressed that the School Committee should be prepared for either scenario.
Meanwhile, Antonucci emphasized that he is proud of how the district has been run, and said he feels that for the amount of money that is paid, Westwood has one of the best school districts in the state. To support his thoughts, he referred to last year's Boston Magazine rating of the top 25 schools in Massachusetts, which put Westwood at number 11.
However, Westwood’s cost per pupil of $13,839 is much lower than any in the top 10. For example, Weston, which came in at number one, has a cost of $18,023 per pupil.
“I’m pretty bold about my ambitions,” said Antonucci. “I want Westwood to be the number one district. It is very, very expensive to run public schools but I think we are doing a pretty good job with it.”
A Parent-Teacher Organization-sponsored budget forum will take place on Feb.2 at Westwood High School’s Little Theatre.