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DRACUT

Schools budget, cutbacks decried

By Brenda J. Buote
Globe Correspondent / June 14, 2012
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To the dismay of more than 100 Dracut students, parents, and school staff who packed Harmony Hall to express their displeasure with deep cuts that threaten to decimate the district’s music, arts, and foreign-language programs, the School Committee on Monday evening unanimously approved the $26.74 million spending plan proposed by Superintendent Stacy L. Scott for the upcoming fiscal year.

The budget blueprint for the town’s public schools calls for the elimination of 54 positions. In one of his final acts as chief executive of the cash-strapped district, Scott last week issued pink slips to 21 classroom teachers, 21 paraprofessionals, and 12 custodians and administrative support personnel, who are being let go as of June 30 because they have the least tenure. Overall, the district is losing 10 percent of its teachers, including half of its 10 music teachers and two of six fine arts teachers.

Residents have called on town officials to reexamine Dracut’s $65.7 million budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins July 1, to ensure that the school district receives at least the minimum appropriation mandated under state law. A petition submitted to the School Committee during Monday’s meeting urged the five-member panel to delay voting on the budget proposal until the review is completed.

A presentation at the June 4 Town Meeting “led many residents to believe that the budget provided a generous allocation which would be $554,946 over the state-mandated minimum for school spending,” according to the petition. As a result, the layoffs in the district came as a shock to many residents.

“Dracut can do better, not just in terms of funding, but in terms of transparency,” Richard Cowan, cofounder of Dracut Action for Education, told the School Committee during its meeting Monday.

The layoffs, Scott said, are necessary to offset a decline of nearly $2 million in federal funding over the past two years, a gap that the town could not close. As Massachusetts emerges from the recession, Dracut, like many communities across the state, is struggling to find its financial footing.

“We haven’t had a town nurse in three years; the Police Department has 37 officers, down from 44 three years ago; and the Fire Department has 38 firefighters, down from 41,” said Town Manager Dennis E. Piendak. “Since fiscal 2009, our taxes have gone up but state aid has dropped by $1.2 million.”

After two years of level funding from the town, the school district received a $100,000 increase in local spending, or a raise of one-third of 1 percent, for fiscal 2013 — far less than the $500,000 required for the district to cover the rising cost of its fixed expenses.

“It’s the largest [town appropriation] we’ve ever had, but after taking inflation and increased costs into account, it’s the worst situation we’ve ever been in,” said the School Committee chairman, Michael F. McNamara, a retired educator who worked for the local School Department for 29 years and is serving his fourth year on the committee.

Alarmed by the fiscal challenges facing the public schools, McNamara submitted an article to Town Meeting that called for the creation of a study committee to analyze the fiscal condition of the town revenues and accounts and report back to the Board of Selectmen by May 2013. The article was passed unanimously.

“We don’t have a big commercial and industrial tax base and our tax rate is low; that comes at a price,” said McNamara. “The town has to do better. As a community, we must reexamine our priorities and think about where the schools fit into those priorities.”

The financial difficulties facing the Dracut schools are coming under heightened public scrutiny as the School Committee works to put in place a new leadership team that will be charged with overseeing the $59.96 million renovation of Dracut High School, a project approved by voters last year.

Scott is leaving the district June 30 to head the public schools in Framingham. Thomas Rose, the district’s business manager, is leaving Dracut for a similar position in North Attleborough, and Janet Barry, who oversees Dracut’s special education and nursing programs as executive director of student services, has announced that she plans to retire in September.

Four finalists are being considered for the district’s top post: Eric Ely, superintendent of the Southbridge public schools; David Fischer, former superintendent of the Bellingham public schools; Linda Arsenault, principal of the Douglas Waybright Elementary School in Saugus; and Steven Stone, director of special education for Peabody’s public schools. Stone had previously served as director of special education in Dracut.

“We’d like to put [the new leadership team] in place as soon as possible,” said McNamara. The upcoming school year, he added, “is going to be a tough year, no doubt. We’re going to have to work much more creatively and efficiently to ensure student needs are being met as best we can.”

The School Committee plans to hold a budget workshop next week to “revisit the recommended reductions that Dr. Scott has presented and implemented,” McNamara said. At that workshop, the School Committee is expected to consider setting up a revolving account for the music and performing arts programs, in the hope that some of the positions in those departments can be saved. Similar accounts have been established for the district’s athletic programs, which are funded by user fees. Those fees will nearly double in fiscal 2013, to $150 per student, up from $80.

Amy Bailey, supervisor of Dracut’s fine and performing arts programs, together with her predecessor, Leon E. Grande, is working to craft a proposal that includes fees for the district’s co-curricular music programs, including show choir and marching band. That proposal is expected to be unveiled at next week’s workshop.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.

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