Metro, Top Story, Features, Newton

In The Face of Potential Job Cuts, Newton Public Schools Community Takes a Stand

Alana McCarthy, a teaching assistant at Oak Hill Middle School, repurposed one of her classroom posters into a protest sign. She wrote “Art, Music, Special Education, and Mental Health” in marker on jagged pieces of printer paper and glued them above the words “School Looks Different With Cuts.”

McCarthy said her homemade sign depicts how she feels about the possibility of Newton Public Schools (NPS) cutting important faculty and staff positions as a result of a budget deficit.

“Everyone in Newton cares so much about their children’s education—how could we support them taking anything away?” McCarthy said. 

McCarthy—with her handmade sign—took a stand against proposed layoffs and position cuts at Newton Public Schools. Over 300 teachers, parents, and students attended the “Stop the Cuts” rally organized by the Newton Teachers Association (NTA) on Thursday.

Much of the NPS community first learned of the 74 potential faculty and staff position cuts from David Fleishman, NPS superintendent, on March 8. The district’s fiscal year 2023 budget, though, increased by nearly $9 million from fiscal year 2022. 

The main reason for the cuts is a $4 million budget gap, according to Fleishman’s presentation. It is Massachusetts law to balance the school budget. 

Wielding blue and yellow “Fund the Schools” signs, rally-goers walked around Newton City Hall to protest the proposed staff cuts for NPS next year. Their “Stop the Cuts” and “Fund our Schools” chants were met with supportive honking from passing cars. 

Last week, the Newton School Committee and leaders from NPS met on three nights to present the details of the 2023 fiscal year budget. 

The representatives gave detailed summaries of the budget at the meetings. They went over which positions NPS proposes to cut, including literacy and math interventionists. They also discussed a projected strain on school resources, such as heightened caseloads for guidance counselors. 

Several School Committee members said cutting staff positions should be the district’s last resort.

“We are in the exact opposite situation I had hoped we’d be in,” said Rajeev Parlikar, a Newton School Committee member from Ward 1, on Monday night. “We are taking things away when we should be building them up.”

McCarthy said students in special education are struggling more than other groups of students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a sentiment that another NPS special education teacher, Elizabeth Opiyo, also expressed. 

Opiyo said that despite politicians speaking about how much students are suffering, the budget cuts will limit the resources available to them in elementary, middle, and high schools.

“The school board says, ‘Our big mission is to care about the mental health of our students,’ and then turn around and say, ‘Well, one of the areas that we’re definitely cutting is mental health,’” Opiyo said. “That’s just surprising.”

The potential consequence of the proposed NPS budget for the fiscal year 2023 is strongest in the district’s counseling departments, according to Henry Turner, Newton North High School principal.

“We were in a mental health crisis prior to the pandemic, and it has certainly increased now, and what we have seen is the [heightened] level of need of our students,” Turner said during the school committee meeting on Monday night.  

Despite this heightened need, school counselors’ caseloads will increase if the budget passes, with every counselor having to account for 180 students, according to Turner.

“[Counselors] are going to have higher caseloads, which is going to put a strain on their availability,” he said.

Many teachers at the rally said they are also concerned that cuts might worsen the ongoing effects of COVID-19-related disruptions to learning and endanger job security.  

Lynn Penczar, a third grade teacher at Lincoln-Eliot Elementary School, said that the teachers aren’t just asking to keep a salary—they want to continue helping students.

“We really need to do this for our kids,” she said. “Our kids are an investment. It’s not the teachers asking for something, this is our community duty to the kids and to the schools to do the best that we can do for our kids.”

Ayesha Farag, NPS’s assistant superintendent for elementary education, and Toby Romer, NPS’s assistant superintendent for secondary education and special programs, outlined the specific impacts of the potential cuts at a school committee meeting on Monday night.

The proposed cuts also affect teachers across art, music, physical education, and library-related positions, according to Farag. 

A decrease in enrollment by 42 students in elementary schools led to a scheduled reduction or elimination of a total 11 full-time equivalent (FTE) elementary school classroom teachers, 1.8 FTE elementary specialist teachers, 0.5 FTE elementary administrators, and one FTE kindergarten aide, according to an NPS budget overview.

One FTE is equivalent to someone who works 40-hour weeks, and a 0.5 FTE means someone who works 20-hour weeks.

“These are not reductions that we would propose but for the financial circumstances that we’re in this year,” Farag said.

The budget shortfall, according to Farag, might also limit academic support for elementary students and lengthen classroom time needed for assessments due to a reduction in staffing, Farag said. 

Romer said low enrollment at Bigelow Middle School is one reason why the district must eliminate 11.8 FTEs, including the elimination of literacy intervention positions and a reduction in math intervention positions. These positions, according to Romer, allow for personalized, one-on-one tutoring for students who may struggle with course material more than other students.

Sarah Sossong, a parent, said to The Heights at the rally that her kindergarten son has benefitted from speech therapy at Mason-Rice Elementary School and has received an amazing education. 

“That’s actually one reason that we didn’t have him go to the private schools—they didn’t have that sort of resources,” Sossong said. 

The Newton North Career & Technical Education (CTE) program will experience a staff reduction of 0.8 FTE, according to NPS’s presentation on Monday night. 

The Newton North CTE is a vocational program, giving students the opportunity to explore careers in areas like graphic design, automotive technology, and culinary arts, according to Newton North High School English teacher Mike Schlegelmilch.

“Once you phase out a program like that, it’s really hard to reinstate,” Schlegelmilch said during an interview at the rally. “I’m worried that these cuts are going to really damage the school system in a way that will be hard to repair from and will take a long time to build back.”

Rebecca Maxfield, a psychologist at the Newton Early Childhood Program, similarly emphasized the benefits of more individualized learning for struggling students.

“It seems like it’s really mostly counseling and literacy help and math help—all the extras that some of our really vulnerable kids need in order to get that extra help, especially post COVID,” Maxfield said about the programs most likely to take the biggest hit as a result of the cuts. 

Many other teachers at the rally agreed with Maxfield that students are struggling after facing learning disruptions. Katie Carlson, a first-year teacher at Day Elementary School, said that teachers’ jobs are getting harder, not easier, now that the city and NPS have begun relaxing COVID-19 restrictions. 

“The kids are coming to us with significant learning gaps and social-emotional needs that they did not have before,” Carlson said. “And funding is going away instead of coming in. And people aren’t paying as much attention anymore because the acute fear of COVID has gone away, but the scars have not gone away for our needs.”

Jackie Mann, the principal of F.A. Day Middle School, spoke about her personal experience at the School Committee meeting.

“I envision that we will experience [those gaps in learning] not just next year, but years after with that lack of continuity,” Mann said. “Our teachers are working very hard—I’d use the word heroic—over the past few years … in thinking about [how teachers help with] the diverse needs of students in front of them.”

Carlson said the cuts discourage highly qualified, educated, and caring individuals from going into the field of teaching. Teaching involves a lot of physical labor and technical expertise, she said, yet teachers are not getting the respect they deserve as professionals. 

“I don’t think everybody in teaching should be a martyr that has to sacrifice their wellbeing because they care about kids,” Carlson said. “And the government is taking advantage, the government at large takes advantage of how much teachers care about kids.” 

The schools have made headway in the last few years at diversifying their workforces, Schlegelmilch said, meaning that many of the recently hired faculty are teachers of color. 

“One other way that these cuts are really impacting, sort of like the most vulnerable folks in our building, is a lot of educators of color whose positions are at risk,” Schlegelmilch said. “And that’s terrible for students of color because we want a workforce that reflects our student body.”

After circling Newton City Hall, the rally-goers returned to the grassy area across from the Newton War Memorial to listen to Michael Zilles, NTA president, address the crowd. 

“I have to say that this community has come together in a way that I have not seen in my 12 years at the NTA,” Zilles said. 

Following Zilles’ speech, Max Page, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, also addressed the crowd. Page said that the gathering represented the attendees’ commitment to students and teachers. 

“I will say what is beautiful is when parents and students and unionized educators come together to defend the common good and the most fundamental bedrock of democracy, which is your public schools,” Page said. 

The rally-goers included Newton community members of all ages, from parents with children in strollers to elementary students with their backpacks, to middle schoolers holding homemade neon signs to first-year and tenured faculty members. 

Though Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller did not attend the rally, she released a statement about the potential job cuts in her newsletter on Friday. She attended the three School Committee meetings throughout the week. 

The City of Newton has directed more than $14 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to NPS, with most of that money coming in the form of facility improvements and COVID-19-related expenses, like ventilation upgrades, according to the statement.

The City of Newton has received approximately $63 million through ARPA, with $28.3 million either used or allocated thus far, according to the city’s website. Newton still has about $34.7 million of the funds to spend.

Fuller wrote that the city should not use ARPA funds in order to avoid staff cuts, calling it a risky financial decision. During Thursday’s meeting, Fuller also said that using ARPA funds to close the NPS budget gap wouldn’t be a responsible or appropriate thing to do. 

Page, though, said the city should not reserve the funds for the long term.

“I believe you hear the word—the phrase—ARPA, that means American Rescue Plan Act, not American ‘reserved for the long-term plan’ act,” he said. “Rescue [and] emergency is about now.”

Zilles also criticized how Fuller and the city have used ARPA funds, as members of the crowd cheered and waved their signs. 

“We know where the problem lies: The problem lies in a mayor that is not fully funding the schools,” he said. “We know that the problem is a mayor that not only isn’t releasing funding that is there—the ARPA funding to get us through this crisis. What has created this crisis? She has created this crisis.”

Fuller wrote in the statement that this is a challenging time and expressed regret over having to make faculty and staff reductions in order to balance NPS’s budget.

This is 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,” she wrote.

At the conclusion of the three-day budget review, Ward 5 Newton School Committee member Emily Prenner introduced a resolution calling the budget a negative development for the city’s schools.

“Therefore, the school committee resolves that the current budget allocation is not enough to run our schools without negative impact on our kids,” she wrote in the resolution.

After comments in support of the resolution from Christopher Brezski, Ward 2 School Committee member, and Kathleen Shields, Ward 7 School Committee member, the resolution passed without dissent—except for an abstention vote from Fuller.

The School Committee will meet again on April 4, when a straw vote on the budget will take place, if time allows, or it will be held on April 6. The final vote on the budget will take place on April 11. 

Community members will be able to voice their opinions again on April 4 at a public hearing prior to the School Committee meeting on that day. 

Many teachers at the rally called on the mayor and city-elected officials to hear their opinions, stop the potential cuts, and allocate more funds to the schools. 

“When you’re not sure if you’re going to have a job next year and you’ve got a family to support, you need to go look for work in other places,” Schlegelmilch said. “Some of our most promising initiatives in terms of diversifying our workforce are going to be rolled back, and we are at risk of losing a lot of talent. ”

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Images by Julia Remick and Connor Siemien / Heights Editors

April 3, 2022