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Newton school budget tackles surge in students

Superintendent David Fleishman last week released his proposed $195 million budget for Newton’s school system, including funds for an additional 32 positions to accommodate increasing enrollment, a full-time coordinator for mental health services, and elimination of bus fees for elementary students across the city.

“This is a budget that reflects what is important to us, and allows a very good system to get better,” Fleishman said.

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Mayor Setti Warren said the spending plan for next fiscal year addresses “the big, huge enrollment growth that we are going to see over the next several years.” He said that in approving last year’s tax increases, the community decided that its schools needed additional resources to address facility and staffing issues.

“This budget does that,” Warren said.

Fleishman said he’s asking that the elementary bus fee be eliminated, at a cost of $90,000 in revenue, to assure fairness across the system amid changes aimed at balancing enrollment among the city’s 15 elementary schools.

Rather than assigning students to schools based on clearly drawn districts, administrators will be using larger “buffer zones’’ that provide more control over enrollment, avoiding situations where one elementary school is overcrowded while another is underutilized.

Fleishman said that while the buffers are a key tool in dealing with the more than 650 additional students expected to enter the public schools in the next five years, they are a “trade-off.”

Some families with children ready to start kindergarten in September still don’t know which school they will be attending, he said.

While the buffer zones make it difficult to predict which elementary school a family’s child will attend, once a child starts kindergarten at a particular school, Fleishman said, the student and any siblings can expect to stay there.

“We can accurately project our enrollment figures, but we can’t always predict where the increases are going to be,” he said.

The bus fees are also being eliminated with an eye toward September when the Angier School renovation project begins and its students will be bused to the Carr School on Nevada Street until its completion, “marking the beginning of many years of elementary school renovation and expansion,” according to the detailed, inch-thick budget proposal provided by Fleishman.

Parents of students who take a bus to school pay $310 annually, with a family maximum of $620. The bus fee for middle and high school students would remain in place next year under Fleishman’s proposal.

The proposed $195,129,819 budget represents a 3.7 percent, or $7 million, increase over this year’s spending for the district, which has more than 12,600 students. Salaries and benefits make up 85 percent of the total.

The $1 million earmarked for the schools in last year’s Proposition 2½ override is included in the $7 million increase, according to Fleishman, who said he has an obligation to spend that money to hire staff to handle enrollment increases.

“That is what people voted for,” he said.

With that in mind, Fleishman’s proposal addresses the expected addition of 61 elementary students in the fall by adding the equivalent of 5½ full-time elementary school teachers and 5½ aides, the equivalent of 1½ full-time literacy specialists, and a half-time assistant principal at Angier to help manage the move to Carr and the increased enrollment once the new building is complete.

Middle school enrollment is projected to essentially remain stable, with a decrease of 11 students anticipated. The proposed budget adds the equivalent of one full-time reserve teacher to be used where needed.

The budget adds “significant” staffing at both high schools, resulting in an average class size of 21.5, according to Fleishman’s proposal, which described the figure as the “most favorable’’ since 2009. The equivalent of 10 full-time high school teachers will be hired to address a projected increase of 98 students, which Fleishman said will be evenly divided between the two schools.

In addition, the budget calls for adding the equivalent of one full-time guidance counselor, two full-time schedulers, a part-time position as head of the fine arts department, and a secretary to support “common core efforts.”

Services for students who do not speak English as their first language are also being expanded.

The English Language Learning department will add the equivalent of two full-time teachers to accommodate an increase of 17 percent, or 133 students, this year alone. The number of ELL students has gone up by 65 percent over the past decade, according to school figures.

Fleishman said his plan also calls for a full-time “therapeutic coordinator” to oversee mental health services provided to students systemwide.

“It was a half-time position, and that just wasn’t working well,” he said.

“There has always been a need for this, and the events of this school year have crystallized that need,” he said when asked whether the expanded position was a response to the suicides of three high school students since October.

The budget also has a projected reduction in out-of-district special education tuition costs by expanding in-house services, including a program that enables elementary students to continue in school during a variety of difficult circumstances.

The program is often used for students with significant school anxiety issues, sudden or traumatic changes in their family, or while assessments are being done.

“We are trying to keep these kids in school,” Fleishman said.

The budget proposal was presented to the School Committee during its meeting last Thursday. The committee scheduled several sessions to discuss the plan’s details in advance of a special public hearing on the budget at 7 p.m. March 31. The committee’s final vote on the spending request is scheduled for April 7.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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