Budget woes push Southbridge to consider 30-45 staff cuts

By Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Writer
shaun@TheCitizenChronicle.com

SOUTHBRIDGE — Tuesday night’s officially posted School Committee meeting was unofficially cancelled by the panel’s chairman, yet three members sat in to learn more about a $3.1 million deficit they only learned about barely hours earlier through The Citizen Chronicle.

Confused yet?

Southbridge Public Schools Receiver/Superintendent Jeffrey A. Villar explained that School Committee Chairman Bill Bishop had notified him earlier in the day that there was a misunderstanding as to when the panel would meet after a recent nor’easter postponed the last regularly scheduled meeting.

The Citizen Chronicle was able to confirm that the meeting was not formally cancelled through the Town Clerk’s office, which handles all public meeting postings and cancellations in Southbridge. The cancellation also appeared to be news to the School Committee’s recording clerk, Southbridge Community Television, the board’s student representative, some of the elected panelists, and those in the audience.

After the meeting, School Committee member Amelia Peloquin said she only learned of the cancellation when she made a phone call to Mr. Bishop to alert him she would be a few minutes late. He informed her, while she was en route to Town Hall, that the meeting had been cancelled. Ms. Peloquin then called School Committee Vice Chairman Ray Page, who reaffirmed the meeting’s cancellation. She continued on anyway, joining two other panelists who had apparently not been told of the scheduling change.

School Committee member Jacquelyn Ryan served as de facto chairperson of the School Committee alongside Peloquin and fellow member Tanya Duval as district administrators gave a PowerPoint presentation outlining the budget gap and its expected consequences.

“This evening we are going to begin to give you an update as to where we are fiscally,” Mr. Villar said. “This is for this year, 2018 budget, and our steps to produce a budget that’s balanced for 2019.”

Business Manager Seth Racine presided over the presentation, which provided a gloomy outlook for the upcoming budget season. Mr. Racine said the beleaguered school district “is facing major financial challenges” in the current budget and in the development of next year’s budget.

The fiscal 2018 budget “is out of balance due to higher than budgeted costs for out-of-district tuitions and transportation,” Mr. Racine said. The fiscal 2019 budget includes a $3.1 million “gap due to properly funding costs that were previously underfunded and funding salary contracts.” In the long term, he said, the district must build a financially sustainable plan with up-to-date systems and software.

School Committee members expressed their frustration that they were not made aware of the budget woes by administration prior to the meeting, instead learning about it in an exclusive breaking news article by The Citizen Chronicle early Tuesday afternoon. That article was based on an information contained in an email Mr. Villar sent to staff district-wide on Tuesday morning.

“A local news organization picked up on this before any of us actually knew what was going on the school board, which in and of itself is really sad,” said Ms. Ryan.

She later added that she learned of the news through social media upon returning home from work.

“That is unacceptable,” she asserted. “We as school board members should have been included in that so that we knew what was happening on the ground.”

Ms. Peloquin agreed, saying the lack of communication did not strike her as appropriate.

Mr. Villar offered no apologies, noting that prior notification wouldn’t alter the situation. “It’s not going to change the outcome,” he said, adding that School Committee members had the opportunity to ask questions about the budget shortfall in real time during the meeting, while staff members did not.

“I’m not going to be apologetic for the fact that I communicated to folks and you do have the information that feels appropriate to share at this time,” Mr. Villar added.

He also laid out a scenario to explain why staff was informed several hours before the meeting was scheduled to be held.

“Imagine you’re an employee of the Southbridge Public Schools. You come to work every day, you give all to your students, and you hear on the news that night that your boss was talking about cutting your job and no one told you,” Mr. Villar said. “My staff got advanced notice of this meeting and the content of this meeting because I believe they deserve to know because they are putting it all on the line for our kids every day. This decision is not something that will be easy for any of us to make.”

Among the causes of the difficult decisions facing administration are the rising expenses associated with local school-aged children despite a shrinking enrollment in the public school system. Officials said Southbridge’s educational assessments have increased 235 percent over the last seven years, putting greater pressure on funding. Over that time, district enrollment has gone from a high of 2,275 students in fiscal 2013, to 2,003 students today. In that same time, the number of students enrolled elsewhere through school choice or the recently opened Old Sturbridge Academy Charter School has risen from 191 to 315. As a result, Southbridge’s net assessments have increased from approximately $990,000 in fiscal 2012 to $2.33 million currently.

Cuts to the budget become difficult as 92 percent of the budget is directly tied to salaries, buses, and tuitions, officials explained. The largest expense is the $20,607,485 allocated for salaries, 77 percent of the overall budget.

Mr. Villa had informed staff that the district would likely reduce its full-time staff by approximately 30 employees, with the possibility of as many as 45 being cut if other shortfalls were not otherwise addressed.

Ms. Ryan urged for the sparing of as many educator jobs as possible.

“It’s not wise to cut explicit from the ground support and the foot soldiers,” she said. “This is a really unfair situation.”

Mr. Villar agreed, asserting classroom teachers would be “the last place we’ll look” for cost savings.

In his email notice to staff, Mr. Villar reported that the spending in fiscal 2018 is out of balance due to greater than anticipated costs for out-of-district tuition and transportation upward of $759,000. Those costs “will require significant increases in these line items for the 2019 budget.”

Mr. Villar also noted the district anticipates “flat or declining revenue” from grants and officials are planning for a zero percent increase in funding from the town. Additionally, contractual raises negotiated by the Southbridge Education Association (SEA) are factored into the budget preparation.

Mr. Villar said the developing budget is further constrained by “other accounts that have historically been underfunded such as substitutes, facilities cost, and benefits which will need to be increased for next year,” as well as a “pressing need for new initiatives to help the district make the necessary improvements and will have to make these investments.”

As part of the anticipated budget cuts, the district will delay the implementation of a plan to extend the workday for elementary and middle school teachers by 30 minutes in the upcoming school year.

“The delay means that we will keep the workday at the same length as it is this year,” Mr. Villar said. “It also means that the additional salary increase that was directly linked to the extended workday will also be delayed until the plan is implemented.” Delaying the implementation of a longer school day, he said, will save the district about $235,000.

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