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Decision to cut Wakefield school social worker position draws protest

April 14, 2011
WAKEFIELD — In a community still reeling from two untimely deaths and where children in need of the basics such as clothing and food are more and more prevalent, news that the school board had cut the social worker position at Paul School did not go unnoticed.

Wakefield School Board Chair Janet Gagnon opened Wednesday's April 6 school board meeting with a statement clarifying the board's decision to eliminate the position of social worker in addition to a SEEK position, "until more information is available regarding state budget and its impact on our 2011-12 Paul School budget."

Faced with an April 15 deadline to notify professional staff of renewals, the board was hard-pressed to carve out some of its budget in order to make room for unknown legislative budget cuts. The board agreed "to initiate a RIF (reduction in force) in the category of social worker [and hold off on the SEEK position]," as they are not required positions. The decision was based on a number of factors, including student count, classroom teacher needs, special education needs, and the minimum requirements needed to meet the minimum standards.

While both are important – SEEK stands for Special Education for Exceptional Kids and provides behavioral interventions to special needs students in order to maximize their potential – it was the removal of the social worker position that had the public most concerned.

Cut position defended

Parents and teachers alike showed up to the April 6 meeting to listen and speak on behalf of Debra Wilson, whose job it is to help the students and families of Paul School (and Wakefield students who attend Spaulding High School) connect with local resources and maintain a healthy quality of life.

One of these parents, Bonnie Cyr of Wakefield, pleaded with the board to reconsider its decision, which she said would adversely affect her, and many other parents', efforts to keep connections strong within the community and provide consistency in advocating for the children.

"What is my safety net going to be as a parent if this position is gone?" she asked. "What have you done to ensure that the services the social worker is providing in the building will be implemented into the structure of the school once the position is eliminated?"

Unable to answer that quite yet, Gagnon suggested utilizing the town's services and offered that the best advice the board could give at the moment was to direct concern to the local government.

"…If you would all like to contact your senators we would very much appreciate that," she said, "because we did create a budget that you passed, …that included all positions for next year. Our predicament is just what the state proposes."

No one disputed what had to have been a difficult decision process for the board, but how closely they looked within their own budget to see where monies might possibly be saved or reallocated was questioned.

Wakefield resident Jodi Gould's suggestion to hold an emergency budget meeting to look at each line item was dismissed by Gagnon who said that she, along with others on the board, had already done so and that a change in the budget would only result in a "different group before the board" asking to reinstate someone or something. "What would you take out?" she countered.

"Even though her position here [exceeds] the minimum requirements, I feel that she is important enough to keep here," said Gould in regard to the work Wilson has done at the schools in the wake of two suicides that shook the school community in recent years.

"The cost that we will have to endure if we don't have social services here is way more than what you have allocated for her salary," agreed Vivian Macedo, another Wakefield resident.

The social worker is considered by many to be a vital link between the students and the community. "[Wilson] helps families secure basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing so that students are ready to come to school and learn," read one Paul School paraprofessional off of a petition signed by 68 of the school's staff asking that the school board "reconsider their decision to eliminate our school social worker and reinstate Debora Wilson in that position."

Budget perspective

Resident Dave Mankus got a round of applause for his comments from the perspective of a budget committee member. "We went through the budget in two hours and thought it was all set. If we had known what we know now, we would have done the same thing we did with those books." he said referring to a time the committee gave more money than requested to the Gafney Library after a flood destroyed many of the facility's children's books. Children are a priority to the committee, concluded Mankus, "We would have given you what you need to do the vital services we see as so important."

Gagnon responded if the school board had had the foresight prior to its deliberative session it "could have put forward a motion to put money back into the budget." However, it was three days after the deliberative session was held that Governor John Lynch announced his budget with the proposed reduction in retirement funding.

The meeting evolved into a brainstorming session on what could be done. Those in attendance offered suggestions, such as petitioning the superior court to hold a special town meeting (unfortunately 50 percent, about 1,600, of all registered voters would have to show up and vote for a deficit appropriation – only 16 percent voted on March 8), forgoing a new computer or science program, exhausting all applicable grants, and possible fundraising options.

While Gagnon said the board is open to all ideas, it is hoping that come June 30, when the State announces its budget, that this will all be a moot point. If the state funding cuts are not implemented, the board will gladly reinstate both positions.

"The decision was based solely on this financial issue," assured Gagnon, "and how we absorb that. If the state isn't taking anything away and we don't have to come up with that money. We've already done our budget and that includes all positions."

In the meantime the board will consult with its lawyer in regard to how or whether it can receive money raised by parents, a suggestion made by those wanting to know what they could do legally to raise money for the position.

Asked in a follow up e-mail for her opinion on the matter, Debra Wilson said that though she has received an outpouring of support from all those around her, the news of the RIF was "surprising and disheartening."

"I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have come forward to voice their concern about the needs of the families of Wakefield," she said. "I am at a loss of words to describe the feelings of affection I hold for the families I service. I am proud of their willingness to stand up and support families in need. My experiences with the children and families of Wakefield are cherished and will not be forgotten."

Regardless of the outcome, as witnessed at the school board meeting, Wilson's work and dedication to Wakefield students over the years will not be forgotten either.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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