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Layoffs loom for Brookline school employees

In Brookline, town officials say a budget crisis is forcing tough decisions. School employees were expecting layoff notices Friday afternoon.
In Brookline, town officials say a budget crisis is forcing tough decisions. School employees were expecting layoff notices Friday afternoon.John Hilliard for the Boston Globe

The town of Brookline laid off an unknown number of teachers and staff Friday amid a town budget crisis caused by the coronavirus, school committee members announced.

District leaders said they hope to recall at least some staff and open at full capacity in the fall, but a $12.8 million town budget gap has forced the district to make hasty decisions on how to reduce expenses immediately.

The announcement prompted fierce backlash from parents, students, the teachers union, and educators themselves, who called layoffs avoidable and said they will have a devastating effect on a district already jarred from a semester upended by the virus.

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“They don’t realize the level of terror that people feel right now, in terms of their economic livelihood,” said Jessica Wender-Shubow, president of the Brookline Educators Union.

Union officials said they believe the cuts will disproportionately affect educators of color, many of whom have been hired in the past few years as part of a district push to increase diversity.

The e-mail sent by the district to families did not specify how many employees would be laid off or in which departments. The union and students said they believe many will be from the arts and humanities departments.

The e-mail said the pandemic has affected the town budget in numerous ways. Restaurant taxes have declined, parking meter fees have been suspended and commercial revenue to the town has fallen “precipitously” since March, it said.

As a result of the likely shortfall, the school committee was asked to quickly cut costs by $6.3 million, or 5.3 percent, the e-mail said. The town has also made other cuts, it said, and plans to make more.

The note to families, sent by Julie Schreiner-Oldham and Suzanne Federspiel, the school committee chair and vice chair, said the district does not have clear guidance about whether school buildings will reopen in the fall or what conditions might be required to reopen. The district was asked to make the cuts quickly but will need more time to craft a full plan for what the fall might look like, it said.

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“The committee is committed to maintaining as many of our employees to the greatest extent possible. The accelerated pace of this process has created challenges,” the e-mail said. “We are saddened and disappointed at finding our district in this situation, and we are doing all we can to bring the district through a difficult time.”

The district has already made other cuts, including $1.5 million from the central administration, but because most of the district’s budget is salaries, it is impossible to make dramatic reductions without affecting staff, the note said.

“We know that each notice represents an individual or family’s financial security thrown into question, and we know the worry and fear that these notices are creating for all of our educators, staff, and families,” the note said.

It said the district is also looking for ways to avoid the personnel cuts including funding from the state and federal government, freezing pay increases, and furloughs, but many options require negotiation with the teachers union.

The note said false rumors have been spreading about the cuts. The Brookline Early Education Program has not been eliminated, nor have the music, arts, health, and world language programs, the note said.

The district plans to hold a public meeting on June 4 at 6 p.m. to discuss the school budget, the note said.

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Bernard Greene, the chairman of the town’s Select Board, which oversees the entire town budget, stressed that this spending plan is only a temporary proposal and said there could be a chance to revisit the cuts in November at Town Meeting.

Nevertheless, news of the layoff notices set off fury among students and parents.

Mike Offner, who has children in the public schools, said he believes the school committee has not worked hard enough to avoid layoffs. He worries that cutting staff will lead to higher student-teacher ratios and tank morale.

“As a parent I am absolutely rooting for a no-layoff solution,” he said.

Jack Reisman, a junior at Brookline High School, said he was devastated to learn about the layoffs during his improv drama class on Friday. Drama classes, whose faculty he heard will be cut, have been a source of joy for him, before the pandemic but especially during it.

“It’s just been so relaxing to have something to go to in quarantine and to be with this very supporting and loving community during these very scary and stressful times,” said Reisman, who said his favorite role in school so far has been playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

“I’m extremely worried because my drama teachers have been some of the best teachers at the high school and who I’ve had the closest relationships with,” he said.

Wender-Shubow, the teachers union president, said there are alternatives to layoffs and urged the school committee to reach out to the town’s many wealthy residents for help to plug the budget gap, or borrow money, pressure the state for more funding, or use town reserve funds to avoid layoffs.

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“We have wealth in this community, and this is the time to be creative about it,” she said.

The union president said some staff members have COVID-19 themselves or are dealing with its effects on their family even as they find out their jobs have been eliminated. The layoffs ignore the fact that in the midst of an upended school year and uncertain fall, students need stability from their teachers more than ever, she said.

Karim Azeb, a first-year high school teacher who taught history and a special program for Black and Latino students, was one of the teachers informed on Friday that he would be laid off.

Azeb said he was hired with the explicit goal of increasing the number of educators of color but because many such teachers were hired in the past three years, they will now likely lose their jobs.

"I guess right now it's a tragic, unfortunate side effect," he said.

Azeb said one of the reasons he took the job was the special program that helped minority students in Brookline foster their own identity in the largely white, upper-class district.

“It would be a shame for sure if the high school lost a significant amount of teachers of color, and then potentially could not fulfill the needs of students of color,” he said. “Hopefully that doesn’t happen.”

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Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.