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Wakefield SAU calls for staff reductions

December 17, 2009
WAKEFIELD — Wakefield School District is cutting positions because of a declining student population and the dismal economy, officials say.

At the Dec. 8 budget committee meeting, the SAU administration recommended cutting the following positions from next year's budget: two teachers and a guidance counselor; three paraprofessionals would be eliminated through attrition.

In addition, the SAU administration has recommended that Wakefield and Milton School Districts share a transportation director and a facilities director. Currently, both districts have their own transportation and facilities directors. One position will not continue next year because grant funding has run out. The Wakefield School District has a total of 99 employees.

The school board supports the position cuts in the budget, which were based on declining enrollment and the faltering economy, said School Board Chair Janet Gagnon. Now, the budget committee is reviewing next year's budget in preparation for the March ballot. The budget committee is scheduled to meet again on Dec. 22. at the Paul School at 6:30 p.m.

Gagnon said her board was proposing a "good solid budget," but making staff reductions is an emotional process.

"We know these people (who would be let go) and that's why it's very difficult," said Gagnon. "We as a school board have to separate the person from the position, but it's still hard."

The number of teachers and guidance counselors will be reduced because of decreasing enrollment. For most of the last nine years, Paul School has had an average enrollment of about 530 students. This year, Paul School had an enrollment of 469 students, including 38 kindergarteners that were moved from Union School to Paul School, according to budget committee minutes of the Dec. 8.

Budget committee member David Mankus wondered how student populations were forecast. Superintendent Gail Kushner explained that her staff estimates future kindergarten levels by checking with local day care providers and by using a system called Child Find. Town history is used to predict higher grade-levels. Further, school districts across the state are facing a decrease in student population while the population of retirees is increasing, said Kushner according to the minutes.

A chart recorded in the draft minutes shows that a first grade teacher position and a sixth grade teacher position are to be eliminated. This would leave the district with two first grade teachers and two sixth grade teachers. The new teacher-to-student ratio for the first grade is estimated to be one to 19. The teacher-to-student ratio for the sixth grade is estimated to be one to 25.

These are still good class sizes, said Gagnon. For example, the state allows sixth grade classrooms to have 30 students per teacher. The school board would not be afraid to hire back more teachers if enrollment suddenly spiked, she said.

Also, the school district won't necessarily cut the people who are now teaching first and sixth grade because teachers at the kindergarten through sixth grade levels can be interchanged, said Gagnon

SAU Special Education Director Scott Reuning, who helped the administration to develop the budget, said who would get cut would be based on academic preparation (degrees a teacher holds), staff development requirements, evaluation recommendations, and disciplinary record. If all those factors are equal then layoffs would be based on seniority, he said.

"Our school doesn't do last hired first fired," said Gagnon.

Budget committee member Charlie Edwards asked if this is a good time to cut guidance staff, following the suicide of a student earlier this fall.

But Kushner said based on state recommendations the school district is "significantly" overstaffed with two guidance counselors and a social worker. Kushner recommended cutting a guidance counselor position and adding a part time secretary to handle paperwork associated with the eliminated position.

Having the Wakefield and Milton School Districts share a transportation director and facilities director would save Wakefield about $27,000. Reuning said Milton School District is facing even more severe issues due to the economy.

But the proposed merge of the transportation director position was cause for concern for budget committee member Connie Twombley, who was on the school board when the transportation director was hired in the early part of this decade.

"He has done a wonderful job," said Twombley. "Our kids (students) love and respect him and I don't want to lose that."

Reuning said the decision to merge the positions is based on the need to make the SAU more efficient. Although the people who hold these positions now would be given consideration, the position would have to be advertised.

Budget committee members asked how the positions would be paid for if shared. Kushner replied the transportation position would be split evenly based on a comparison of buses, drivers, and routes. Milton would pick up 70 percent of cost of the facilities director position because Milton has more schools. Milton has two elementary schools, one high school, and a few preschools. Wakefield only has one elementary school.

Currently, the Wakefield School District budget stands at around $8.4 million and is $11,000 to $15,000 under last year's budget. However, the teacher and paraprofessional contracts are still in negotiations.

The School District Budget Public Hearing will be held at Paul School on Jan. 14 at 7 p.m.

Because of a miscommunication, the Dec. 8 budget committee meeting was not videotaped for the Wakefield's Public Education Government television channel.

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