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Better times for budgets in Quincy

It may seem like a distant memory now, but it was only five years ago that the merciless recession came for its pound of flesh in Quincy.

School budget meetings, ordinarily poorly attended affairs, were suddenly crowded, as parents, students, and others pleaded with district administrators to somehow find a way around the deep cuts to teachers, programs, and services that were proposed in order to make up for a deficit of more than $9 million. Some said they would rather absorb a tax increase; others argued parents should pay more and higher fees for services.

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That was just the beginning. Over the next two years, Quincy school officials would make more than $5.5 million in cuts, including a total of 137 positions, 77 of which were teachers.

“That was brutal,” said Jim Mullaney, director of business for the School Department. “It was basically devastating; severe cuts in federal aid, state aid, a reduction in local receipts in local taxes, excise taxes. It just really, really hurt.”

When the bleeding finally stopped around 2011, school officials wasted no time trying to restore what had been lost, albeit gradually. On Monday, when the City Council votes on the budget for the next fiscal year starting July 1, it will mark a moment of celebratory reflection for school administrators as they weigh how far the district has come in the last three years.

“We’ve had three years now of level-service budgets; we’ve been building,” said Superintendent Richard DeCristofaro. “We’ve finally gotten into the academic support area, like a full-time instrumental music teacher . . . and psychologists. That’s the thread of improvement that we’re working on. We don’t replenish that as quickly as we do the academic side.”

At $94.1 million, the School Department budget proposed by Mayor Thomas P. Koch is 3.23 percent higher than the current fiscal year’s. Approval of the budget would mean that school officials will have restored cuts made prior to 2011 to personnel, programs, and services by $8.6 million.

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“Things like that make us stronger,” Koch said of the cuts during the recession. “It makes us look at what’s important; what did we do right, what can we do better. But I don’t want to go through that again. Laying people off is an awful thing.”

Increases in state aid and the larger-than-anticipated retirement of 27 employees next school year will help school officials chip away faster at the recession-fueled cuts, including the addition of two full-time and one part-time eighth-grade French teachers; bumping three elementary school literacy instruction teachers from part time to full time; and bumping all part-time kindergarten aides to full time as well as hiring 10 new aides.

Not everything that has been restored is exactly equal to what was cut starting five years ago because of changes in curriculum and standards, said Laura Owens, assistant to the superintendent for communications and operations. Some cuts, like the seventh-grade foreign language program, will remain in place a bit longer while higher priority items are restored.

“No, I don’t think I’d call this a full recovery,” DeCristofaro said. “We want to make sure, as we go forward, that we’re looking at our priorities, whether it’s class size, technology, academic programs, things that were eliminated, and partially restoring them. We’re creating the roots toward that excellent school system I know we have, but that we can embellish upon. That’s our attitude: incremental sustained improvement.”

While it may seem like a slow churn toward recovery for some, it is important to look back, as painful as it was, to fully appreciate the gains that have been made, DeCristofaro said.

“We tend not to appreciate everything that we do have because we’re always looking forward to ‘What could it be?’” he said. “The reality is we’re in very, very good shape, and what we’re getting for our children now is excellent.”

In 2010, the initial budget proposed cuts to the tune of more than 200 employees, a figure later reduced to 118 thanks to grants awarded to the School Department through the federal stimulus program enacted during the recession, Mullaney said. A deferral of 4 percent pay raises by the teachers’ union that year kept about 80 teachers from being laid off. But hard decisions were still made, including increasing fees for sports and school bus transportation, and eliminating some middle school librarians.

“It was my first year and we had to cut. And going through the cuts, it was absolutely painful,” said School Committee member Barbara Isola.

Isola said she was most proud that the committee and administration were adamant about not introducing a tuition fee for the district’s full-time kindergarten program, which at the time was only four years old.

“After the vote, I felt we had the best budget we could with the amount of money we were given,” she said. “To revisit the past -- we did what we had to do at the time, but we’re back. This budget is fabulous; it’s an incredible budget. The mayor gave us an increase; we got more money from the state. It’s really a good student-centric budget, and that’s the way it should be.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.

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