Funding Shortages Creating Concerns in the Short and Long Term
Attempts to erase a nearly $9 million gap in the current school department budget might require massive layoffs later this month, with another round of cuts being prepared for March, as fears grow that the Everett Public Schools (EPS) won’t be able to sustain the programs and services that are essential to its success.
Superintendent of Schools Frederick F. Foresteire announced at Monday’s School Committee meeting that 110 employees have been notified they will be laid off effective Friday, February 16, resulting in $2 million in savings. Teachers (58), paraprofessionals (18), clerks (12), and custodians and houseworkers (19) make up most of the proposed layoffs, which are spread across every building in the school system.
Thirty of the layoffs will be made at Everett High School, including an English teacher, a science teacher, an art teacher, two Italian teachers, two physical education teachers, and three special education teachers. The Madeline English School will suffer 16 layoffs, followed by the Lafayette (11), Webster (7), Whittier (nine), Parlin and Keverian (eight each), Devens (four), and Adams and Webster School Extension (three each). Six staff members in the administration building are scheduled to be laid off, as well as five district-wide employees.
The $2 million in savings from staff reductions will be added to $3.2 million the EPS is expected to receive from city government, and $1.3 million it can utilize from revolving accounts. That adds up to 6.5 million, reducing the budget gap to $2.5 million. Monday night, the School Committee voted to draft a formal request to the City Council asking for the funds needed to avoid any layoffs. The Council meets again on Monday, Feb. 12.
Looking into the future, concerns are mounting about how the schools are going to be funded over the long haul. School Committee member Frank Parker lamented national and statewide funding trends that are “going the wrong way,” and the school department’s struggles to formulate a plan that doesn’t require supplemental budgets “every 10 months.”
“We’ve achieved so much,” Parker told the packed Everett High Library on Monday night. “How do we maintain that going forward?”
In addressing the School Committee, central administrators detailed how the $9,128,998 budget gap results from $6,233,131 in unexpected expenditures and $2,895,867 in anticipated revenue the district is not receiving (or has yet to receive).
The lost revenue includes $1.5 million in Medicaid reimbursement, $1,005,747 in Chapter 70 funds from the state, and the elimination of $357,120 in grants.
The unexpected expenditures were more impactful. They include:
• $1.36 million in tuition assessment for Everett students who attended the Pioneer Charter School in 2016-17
• More than $1.3 million to build and staff the Webster School Extension
• The construction of the playground at the Keverian School ($323,529)
• Approximately $1.6 million in special education services for 25 students who moved to Everett over the past six months
“It can’t be stressed enough how quickly and easily unexpected costs disrupt even the most carefully-planned budget,” said Assistant Superintendent Kevin Shaw As an example, Shaw cites the fact that 25 new special education students who require out-of-district placement moved to Everett over the past six months. These students need services totaling more than $1.6 million (with individual tuitions ranging from $40,000 to $108,000) in unexpected expenditures this fiscal year.
Another significant unexpected expenditure resulted from the city’s decision to lease space to the Pioneer Charter School in the old Everett High School on Broadway for the 2016-17 school year. The school department was charged $1.36 million in tuition for Everett students who attended the expanded Pioneer Charter, far more than the $96,000 the city charged in rent. (The Pioneer Charter has since moved to a different location in Everett.)
Close to $1 million ($967,457) was spent in August and September to convert the first floor of the old high school into the Webster School Extension. The facility houses classroom space for approximately 300 pre-school and kindergarten students, alleviating over-crowding at the Keverian, Parlin, and Webster elementary schools. Salaries at the Webster Extension total $392,737.
REDUCTION IN CHAPTER 70 FUNDING
City and school officials agree that the primary reason for the budget crisis is a fundamental change in the way funding is calculated for “economically disadvantaged” students (Chapter 70 funds, as they are called). Traditionally, districts received additional money for students who are enrolled in the USDA’s free and reduced-price lunch program. Now students must be signed up for one or more of the following state-administered programs: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Transitional Assistance for Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC); the Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) foster care program; and Medicaid.
“Altering the formula epitomizes the idea of a ‘game changer,’” said Assistant Superintendent Charles Obremski prior to Monday’s meeting. “We have a substantial immigrant population, and many of those families do not qualify for programs like SNAP because they haven’t been in the country long enough. Therefore, they are not factored into the funding equation. Since the changes were enacted two years ago, the impact has been crippling to communities like ours.”
Obremski estimates the old funding formula would have resulted in a $6-8 million bump in the school department’s 2018 budget — a frustrating twist, as that closely corresponds to the current budget gap.
A far more immediate issue is the fact that Everett’s 2018 Chapter 70 funding is based on its enrollment figure from October of 2016 (7,078). As of Feb. 1, 2018, Everett’s student population was 7,213, meaning the district has 135 more students than it receives funding for — which equates to the aforementioned $1,005,747, or roughly $12,000 per student
REDUCTION IN SERVICES
Even if the EPS receives the money it needs to avoid layoffs, officials warn that this isn’t a passing storm. Without greater funding for next year’s budget, school department officials say, the district will be hard pressed to fund programs and positions seen as paramount to its ability to meet the needs of its diverse student population.
“Consider interventionists,” said Superintendent Foresteire. “We are not mandated to employ interventionists, but they provide a vital service to students and families. The same is true of interpreters, MCAS tutors, and our pre-school program.”
The Superintendent expressed concern that the district will be forced to curtail music programming, the high school’s successful culinary arts department, clubs and organizations, etc., if more funding isn’t forthcoming. Another worry is Everett High will have to consider charging students a user’s fee to participate in athletics and extracurricular activities — something the EPS has never done and which has always been a badge of honor.
“At some stage, we have to look at the financial commitment we’re making to the schools,” said Superintendent Foresteire. “These cuts are designed to make sure we don’t end the school year in a deficit. They don’t address long-range concerns. Hopefully, something can be done to restore our lost Chapter 70 funds. Locally, it would also help to receive a greater contribution from city government.”
NET SCHOOL SPENDING
The school department’s fiscal year 2018 budget is a shade more than $70 million, an increase of only 1.6 percent over 2017. Everett’s per-pupil spending annually ranks among the lowest in the state, and the city’s commitment to the school department traditionally is at or slightly above 100 percent of the Commonwealth’s “net school spending” requirement.
Of the state’s 322 school districts, Everett ranks 42nd from the bottom in what it receives above net school spending — 102.3 percent, fractionally more than Malden (102.2). The state average is 20 percent above net school spending. Revere spends at 105 percent, Peabody at 112, Somerville at 120, and Medford at 122. Among its neighboring cities, Everett fares better than Chelsea, which is funding its schools at 98.9 percent for fiscal year 2018. (These figures are from 2016, the most recent available figures released by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.)
This year, the city allocated $2 million above net school spending, but school officials point out that the figure was offset by the unexpected expenditures outlined during Monday’s meeting.
“Make no mistake, the mayor and the City Council have been very supportive, and they’ve worked cooperatively with the School Committee to hash out financial issues in the past,” Superintendent Foresteire said. “But I would respectfully ask our city’s leaders to take a big-picture look at how we’re funded.”
If Chapter 70 and net school funding aren’t boosted, the district could be forced into making operational changes. “Remember, the 110 employees we are regretfully letting go represent savings that account for less than 3 percent of our entire budget,” Superintendent Foresteire said. “At some point, we’d have to examine vitally important, but not mandated, programs such as pre-school.”