School Board Roundup: Educators Denounce Proposed FY24 Budget Cuts to Special Education Positions

The school committee met before a full house on Thursday night to discuss proposed cuts in the upcoming special education budget, where administrators pointed out they were already exhausted due to increased student numbers and the complexity of their needs.

During the public comment period of the three-hour meeting, Hopkinton Teachers Association President Becky Abate noted that the population of special education students has doubled over the past decade and now encompasses nearly 30% of Hopkinton public school students.

In the proposed special education budget, proposed staff reductions included 0.8 full-time staff (FTEs) in physical therapy, 0.8 FTEs in occupational therapy, and 0.5 FTEs in speech-language pathology. This would fund administrative positions.

“But that doesn’t tell you the real story of these students who can’t be measured by numbers alone,” Abate said. “We must also look at the importance of their needs which, due to the pandemic, have increased exponentially.”

Some students with special needs have experienced learning loss due to lack of class time. This was accompanied by an increase in “serious social and emotional challenges”, according to Abate, and trying to help control behavioral issues took teachers more time.

“These are the toughest years teachers have ever faced,” she continued. “Our students need a lot. And they deserve a lot. But unfortunately, our current staffing situation does not prepare them or our educators to succeed. »

She pointed out that teachers are not asking for pay rises but “more boots in the classroom”.

Janet Constantine, a kindergarten teacher of 20 years, explained that while the proposed budget will fund a 0.9 FTE position for a paraprofessional in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis), that person is already on staff, currently funded by a grant. .

This member of staff is “not enough” because the needs have “increased considerably”, Constantine said. In November, the pre-kindergarten program qualified 18 additional students, with many more assessments pending” – the third year in a row that pre-kindergarten has seen a 50% increase in the number of students requiring specialist services . While administrative positions may be necessary, she said they should not come “at the expense of student positions”.

These needs were reflected by the teachers and specialists in each school. At Marathon School, teachers “have been forced to operate from a place of prioritizing safety over student learning,” said specialist Kristen Pearson.

Four learning specialists were asked about their situation, she said. Each specialist said they have students who exhibit difficult behavioral issues such as bolting and aggression that require weekly physical management, and they have sometimes had to evacuate classrooms for safety reasons.

Three new principal positions “are the exact opposite” of what her school needs now, she pointed out.

The comments from all the educators drew loud applause from the audience.

School committee chair Nancy Richards Cavanaugh added that she had received about 20 emails mostly about proposed cuts to the positions mentioned. She noted that the operational budget will not be voted on until January, which will give stakeholders time to interact with the school committee. She added that she was encouraged to see so many people involved in the budget process from the start.

Budget presentations made

Budget presentations were made on special education, technology, and buildings and land.

Director of Student Services Karen Zaleski noted that there has been a contractual salary increase of $258,949. Positions that were previously funded by grants this school year, as well as new applications, total $446,275.

The positions requested are a pre-K director and two special education directors, one for grades K-5 and the other for grades 6-12. There is also a clerical demand of 0.8. She said the positions were requested after three years of collecting and analyzing data with Athena Consultancy.

She thanked the educators who attended and expressed “both passion and concern” about the proposed cuts.

“The way I arrived at the reduction recommendation was based on a triangulation of data,” Zaleski explained. This included workload data, evaluation data and year-end reports. She said students will still get the services they need, but she is obligated to present a “morally and ethically responsible and financially sound budget.”

The schedules will be studied to see what can be modified. With regard to directorships, there is a “great need to oversee the teaching process”. She said the proposal is “not a choice/either” that sacrifices therapists at the expense of administrators.

She also noted that transportation expenses increased by 61% in the proposed budget, or $615,876. There is also an out-of-district tuition increase of $76,950.

Holly Morand, a school committee member and parent of a student with special needs, said it “sends a mixed message to the community”. She said there should be a teachers’ forum as part of the budget process. She also questioned the spending of $6 million on a new sports field while there are specialist staff cuts.

There was a request from the Community Preservation Committee for funding for the sports field which was submitted for $5,801,530. The track is at the end of its useful life and there is not enough seating for events. It was approved unanimously.

Devlin added that the data was from last year, which did not take into account increases since September. Zaleski said she got data in September on the previous school year.

For technology, a 4% budget increase was requested for a total of $98,479. This includes operating systems and infrastructure, staff and instructional hardware and software. The full-time website manager position will be abolished and staff will assume this responsibility.

The Department of Buildings and Grounds budget reflects a 10.5% increase of $374,800.71, and the total proposed budget for fiscal year 2024 is $3,952,231.50. The increase will be directed towards maintenance staff, including a floating caretaker’s post, as well as electricity and gas expenses. Custody fees for garbage bags and paper products have also increased.

MCAS scores explained

Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey LaBroad reported on the district’s MCAS test results, noting there is cause for celebration.

He noted that 10th grade students had not taken an MCAS test since they were in seventh grade due to the pandemic because the test could not be administered in the traditional way. He called the 2022 test a new basis for judging achievement.

MCAS is “just one piece of our progress-tracking puzzle,” LaBroad added. There are also several evaluations by educators.

Compared to the state average, Hopkinton’s English Language Arts (ELA) scores fell only slightly while the statewide average fell more steeply. In math, state scores in grades 3 through 8 rose 6%, but Hopkinton “beat them by one,” LaBroad noted.

Hopkinton exceeded the state average in all metrics, including 5th and 8th grade science and 10th grade math and science.

There were “bounces,” LaBroad said, especially in ELA in high school and science, technology and engineering in 5th grade. Vocabulary proficiency among primary school students has also increased.

“I think it’s encouraging to see that the kids are doing well,” said school committee member Jennifer Devlin.

Member Lya Batlle-Rafferty countered that there were areas where there was no growth or negative growth, which LaBroad called a “fair statement.” She added that MCAS “judges the schools, not the kids.”

Member Amanda Fargiano asked LaBroad to come back with a subgroup analysis to dig deeper into the needs of groups such as high-needs students and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, where deficits have been observed.

Construction in progress on the addition of Marathon

Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh announced that work has begun on Marathon School to add four classrooms.

She also noted that there is a need with K-1 playground structures due to increased demand. For example, there are only four swings for 600 students. To complete the equipment, basketball hoops were funded by a grant. The teachers got creative by drawing lines for the hopscotch and allowing the students to walk along the rock face.

A Community Preservation Act application has been submitted for $1 million for the addition of playgrounds. The committee voted to approve it unanimously.

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