The City Council Chambers at City Hall felt more like a high school basketball rally than a School Committee hearing Wednesday night, as hundreds of Quincy citizens, mostly students, hooted and hollered in support of programs that could be cut.
Teenagers and adults alike crammed into the chamber and the hallways and backstairs leading into the wood-paneled room, having heard reports that programs such as full-day kindergarten, elementary literacy early intervention, middle school foreign language, freshmen and JV sports, and high school arts and woodworking classes could be cut and as many as 200 positions could be lost.
“Please don’t take away the things that make so many of us unique,” said Danielle Paschall, a soft-spoken North Quincy High School freshman, who told the School Committee that she chose the school because of its “Renaissance” arts program.
More than five dozen people spoke in a public-comment period that lasted more than two hours. The eight committee members, including Mayor Thomas Koch, who set the budget for the schools, listened silently, nodding or smiling on occasion. The budget includes numerous cuts to close $9.1 million deficit next school year.
Sean Feeney, a 17-year-old junior at North Quincy High School, told of how much Robert Burke’s carpentry class has helped him in his work as a performing magician.
“This carpentry shop...gives you the freedom to build whatever you want,” he told the committee. Interviewed outside the hearing, the bearded Squantum teen, wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt, showed off pictures in his cell phone of a box he’s been building, called an “illusion,” that he will use for his magic performance. He says a similar item would have cost him more than $900 to buy.
“[Mr. Burke] taught us 4-to-1 ratio,” Feeney said. “I didn’t know that before.”
Another citizen who spoke of importance of the carpentry program, which is vulnerable because it is technically not an academic program, was Robert Harding.
A single father of two, Harding talked about how nervous he was when his daughter, who graduated with 26 others from St. Ann School, decided to join more than a thousand students at North Quincy.
But he trusts the guidance her carpentry teacher, Mr. Burke, gives her, because she comes home at night and says, “’Dad, guess what Mr. Burke told me? The same thing you did,’” Harding said in an interview.
Though the room thundered with applause after each speaker, the chamber became more like an MCAS exam room as School Committee members spoke of the reality of the economic pressures the city faces.
The schools take up nearly 40 percent of Quincy’s overall budget of nearly $230 million. The budget they face is about 3.6 percent less than the amount appropriated by the city in fiscal 2010, which ends June 30. But the schools say, because of contractually obligated pay raises and other soaring costs, the cuts to them are more draconian than in other departments -- police and fire were both cut by about 3.7 percent, officials say.
Much of the hole in last year's school budget was plugged through federal stimulus money, which there is less of this year.
The schools requested about $91.6 million for fiscal 2011, and the mayor appropriated about $82.3 in his overall city budget. Almost $5.1 million of the roughly $9 million difference is tied up in a pay raise for teachers and administrators.
Other municipal unions, including the police, have taken furloughs or wage deferrals, and city officials are calling on the teachers’ union, the Quincy Education Association, to do the same.
“Do the right thing, not the political thing,” David F. McCarthy, a School Committee member, told Paul Phillips, the president of the QEA, which went on strike in 2007.
Earlier in the night, during the public comment period, Phillips had told the school committee, “As a citizen of Quincy, please raise my property taxes.”
Koch has said he will not raise property taxes and argued that increasing the property taxes by the maximum allowed, 2.5 percent, would bring in only about $3.5 million, which would not even cover the roughly $5 million in salary increases in the schools. Officials said Quincy has never done what’s known as an override, which would increase property taxes by more than the state-mandate limit of 2.5 percent.
Koch told the crowded room that residents need to come to terms with the economic pressures facing the city and brace themselves for an even worse fiscal 2012.
“I’m not sure we’ll have eight fire houses. I’m not sure we’ll have three branch libraries. That’s the reality of the time we’re living in,” Koch said. “We have to be practical. We have to live within our means."
McCarthy challenged the union president to put the question of wage deferral directly to all the teachers in the union.
“If they vote it down, that’s okay, we’ll deal with it, we’ll go in and do the cuts. If they vote for the deferment, then well see a lot of programs come back in,” McCarthy said.
The teachers union, whose raises take up about $4.8 million of the schools’ shortfall, is expected to meet later this month.
School Committee members asked Koch to reconsider the amount he allocated for schools and will continue to meet to determine how to implement the budget cuts before fiscal 2011 begins on July 1.