Metro, Politics, Newton

Backlash to Potential Job Cuts in Newton Public Schools Continues at Public Hearing

At a public hearing during a Newton Public Schools (NPS) School Committee meeting Monday night, community members, including teachers, aired their concerns that the school district could potentially cut 74 faculty and staff positions.

“We are in lifeboats and we’re watching the Titanic sink,” Newton teacher Kim Smith said. “We’re asking you for help, and for you to tell us to just grin and bear it and get creative is unacceptable.”

At the public hearing, which lasted about two hours, attendees—including NPS teachers, parents, and former students—had a maximum of two minutes each to address the committee members. Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller was in attendance at the meeting.

Smith criticized Fuller’s funding decisions at a time when the district faces a $4 million budget gap. The Deficit equates to about 1.5 percent of the district’s proposed financial year 2023 budget of $262 million.

“It seems very classist to me for the mayor to be funding bike paths and cultural affairs for upper-middle class, white, privileged people, which I acknowledge I am, while making cuts that affect students at the high school level—many of whom are lower income,” Smith said. “I am asking us as a community and as a school system: Are we classist? Because that’s what it looks like right now.”

A decrease in enrollment by 42 students in elementary schools led to a scheduled reduction or elimination of elementary school teaching positions, according to an NPS budget overview.

NPS parent Rielle Montague said declining enrollment in the schools should not be a reason for the district to cut teaching positions. 

“Now is not the time to use a statistic about enrollment loss over a five-year period as an excuse for larger classrooms and fewer teachers,” Montague said. “It’s especially unfair to punish the remaining children in NPS for an enrollment loss tied to the pandemic shift to private schools, an option that only the wealthiest Newton residents could afford to do.”

The City of Newton has received approximately $63 million through the American Rescue Plan Act (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.

In a statement included in a newsletter on Friday, 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 thing to do. But another NPS parent, Julie McLaughlin, called on Fuller to use more of the funds for the schools. 

“Mayor Fuller, I understand that you’ve 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 bike paths, tree preservation, or cultural events.”

Others at the meeting warned that job cuts could further affect the mental health of students.

NPS leaders attributed low enrollment rates at Bigelow Middle School as a reason for job cuts at the elementary level. 

But at Bigelow, according to teacher Kim LeQuire, teachers have had to do more than just teach.

“We have become social workers, technology specialists, and so much more,” LeQuire said. “Mayor Fuller, … I invite you to come and spend the day with me in my classroom and see how much more we do than just teach.”

A few of the meeting attendees made suggestions as to how the district could handle budget shortfalls. Some suggested that the city not invest in new lights for athletic fields at the district’s high schools. On March 17, Fuller released $1.4 million in ARPA funds to purchase new lighting systems at Newton North and Newton South, according to one of her newsletter updates

Philip Koesters, a vice president at a biotechnology company, said the budget shortfall is a small discrepancy when compared to the city’s overall budget. 

“If we break this down, the budget gap that we are currently looking at, as I understand, it’s $4 million,” he said. “What’s that? 1.5 percent of 262 million. Seriously, 1.5 percent. This is Newton. We are a very wealthy community. We have a triple-A rating.” 

The School Committee will meet again on Wednesday. The final vote on the budget will take place on April 11. 

At meetings last week, the committee members 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. 

Terry Altherr, a former NPS student who has autism, shared how the availability of school services helped him through his education. 

“As an autistic student, were it not for my teachers and my aides … I would have graduated, but I don’t think I would have gone beyond that, and thanks to them, I was able to go to American University and graduated in 2018.”

Image by Julia Remick / Heights Editor

April 6, 2022