Dozens of Newton parents and educators Monday called on elected officials to increase funding for the city’s public schools and avoid proposed job cuts they said would hurt vital services for students still recovering from the pandemic.
Newton’s school system is facing a nearly $4 million gap in its budget next year, and Superintendent David Fleishman has proposed cutting 39 positions to close the shortfall. Another 14 positions would be eliminated due to declining enrollment. The reductions would have impacts at all levels of the city’s schools.
Rielle Montague, whose children are enrolled in the city’s schools, told School Committee members during a public hearing Monday she opposed the proposed cuts.
“Our kids have not fully recovered from the pandemic,” Montague said. “Now is not the time to make cuts to staff and services that support our children as they continue to recover.”
Fleishman, who warned staff early last month about the potential cuts, said in a March 23 budget update that officials are doing everything possible to limit the impact of the job cuts.
“However, the magnitude of the reductions will have an impact on some of our staff who are already experiencing stress,” Fleishman said. “We are also worried that some of the reductions will disproportionately impact some of our most vulnerable students.”
Fleishman said next year’s budget shortfall is being driven by rising costs, including increased health insurance costs, a more expensive school transportation contract, along with new and expanded special education programs.
The proposed cuts sparked a demonstration last week by school teachers at Newton City Hall, as well as opposition from the School Committee, which passed a resolution calling for additional funding to avoid the losses. A dozen city councilors have also called on Mayor Ruthanne Fuller to use federal pandemic relief funds to close the budget gap.
Fuller has reported that enrollment in the city’s public schools has dropped by about 1,000 students over the past five years. She said in a statement late last week that Newton will continue to invest heavily in students and educators, “but must remain clear eyed about this reality” of decreased enrollment.
Fuller said that using one-time funding to address the school budget’s structural deficit is not responsible, and deferring these “challenging decisions” will only cause more disruption in future years.
Fuller called the proposed job cuts “painful for the people who serve in these roles, painful for our community that wishes resources were not a constraint, painful after two difficult COVID years and painful as we realize that enrollment trends may lead to more hard choices.”
The proposed budget keeps many academic programs in place, Fleishman said, and would also add approximately 13 positions for expanded and new special education programs next year.
But the proposed cuts would include reductions in literacy and math support for the elementary and middle schools, Fleishman said.
Counseling would be reduced at the middle and high schools, and there would be some larger class sizes, he said.
High schoolers would likely have fewer elective classes, while some middle school teachers would be instructing classes outside of their primary area of specialization, Fleishman said.
Across the school system, there would be cuts in the K-8 curriculum and instructional leadership in virtually every subject, he said.
The budget gap was initially $5.2 million, and Fleishman said that figure was lowered because of an additional COVID reimbursement funding from the city.
Newton received more than $60 million in federal pandemic relief funding, and public pressure has mounted on Fuller to use some of that money to close the gap.
Newton’s public schools enroll about 11,700 students and have a workforce of roughly 2,500 employees, according to the school system. The system’s staff includes about 2,100 full-time and nearly 400 part-time workers.
The city allocated a $262 million budget for the schools next year, an increase of about 3.5 percent, or $9 million, from the current year, according to Fuller, who abstained from voting last week on a School Committee resolution calling for more funding.
The resolution, which was backed by the board’s eight other members, called the proposed cuts “too deep and too painful” and next year’s budget “not enough to run the schools without serious negative impacts on our kids.”
Twelve city councilors, in a letter to Fuller Monday, also said they supported the School Committee’s resolution.
The councilors wrote, “We believe that continued or escalated funding for staff resources at a critical juncture in getting childhood development back on track is a short-term but necessary expenditure,” according to the letter, which was provided by the city clerk’s office.
The letter was signed by councilors Bill Humphrey, Holly Ryan, Alicia Bowman, Brenda Noel, Marc Laredo, Emily Norton, Maria Greenberg, Victoria Danberg, Chris Markiewicz, Tarik Lucas, Julia Malakie, and Pamela Wright.
During a public hearing Monday held by the School Committee, virtually everyone who addressed officials said the cuts would put more pressure on educators, increase class size, and curb the number of support staff for students.
Alison Lobron told the board that children continue to struggle, and she said she had trouble accepting a budget that would eliminate about 50 positions.
“I don’t agree that this budget reflects that our children’s education is a top priority. Our schools are in crisis on many levels,” Lobron said.
Some parents shared poignant personal stories of their children and classmates who struggled with the pandemic, and the emotional and social impacts of the health crisis. Others said the city should draw upon its financial strength and resources to resolve the budget issues, and addressed Fuller directly.
Philip Koesters said the shortfall is only a small piece of a $262 million budget, and Fuller should be able to find a way to close the gap without the cuts.
“This is Newton. We are a very wealthy community. We have a AAA rating, as you constantly point out. We can do this. You, Mayor Fuller, can do this,” Koesters said.
Julie McLaughlin criticized Fuller for not using federal relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act to close the budget gap.
“Mayor Fuller, I understand you have been unwilling to spend some of the remaining money to cover these costs, citing that one-time funding shouldn’t be used to fix a structural deficit,” McLaughlin said. “But wasn’t this exactly the reason for the ARPA funding in the first place? Surely it wasn’t intended for street tree preservation or cultural events.”
Fuller has said the city provided millions of dollars in ARPA relief money to fund this year’s school budget, along with worker stipends, school services, and school projects.
The city also used millions from a separate allocation under the federal CARES Act for new school building ventilation systems and COVID-19 testing.
The public hearing followed Thursday’s demonstration by members of the Newton Teachers Association at Newton City Hall to protest the cuts. The union represents about 2,000 workers, and protesters marched around the building carrying signs while chanting “stop the cuts.”
About 350 people attended the rally, according to Newton Police who were at the scene.
Sheryl Rice, a Bigelow Middle School teacher, said the cuts would put more strain on remaining staff, who will have less time and carry additional work.
“The kids are who [will] suffer. They’re not going to get the same experience as the kids three years ago, or even the kids right now are getting,” Rice said.
Andrew Steinberg, a former Newton schools student, also demonstrated in support of the city’s educators.
“This is the right thing to do, and our teachers deserve better, our students deserve better, and I think Newton deserves better,” Steinberg said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.