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School finances remain on hold

Dale Hanley (click for larger version)
July 20, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — With about five weeks left before school starts, Southbridge schools don't yet have a clear idea how much money they'll really have to work with.

This spring, the School Committee approved $23,359,887, but that was just over $411,000 more than the Town Council would accept. Town records show they made up the difference with some funds from Title I and next year's circuit breaker accounts, both serving special ed students, plus a 31 percent cut in utility line items, elimination of any new programs and leaving at least two vacant jobs unfilled.

Both town and school officials expect more cuts to come — an exact amount is still unclear, but estimates are in the $300,000 range.

Superintendent Dale Hanley noted that number has not yet been voted by Town Counsel, and Town Manager Christopher Clark said staff vacations will delay a final figure until mid-August.

Hanley described the spring budget process as "cutting flesh" and warned that further cuts would "hit bone."

"We worked very hard not to cut classroom personnel," she said, claiming they'd have no choice in the future. She noted the School Committee is now negotiating with the unions, but has already frozen salaries for administrative and other non-union staff.

At present, only one actual teacher's job will remain unfilled — a foreign language post at the high school — in part because the district has been able to save some money by hiring six young teachers, at lower salaries, to replace retirees. She said those hires will probably be announced at the committee meeting next week.

"It's going to be a difficult year with finances; just another obstacle to overcome," Hanley said, noting she expects the recession to last another two or three years.

Also in limbo is the fate of the district's federal stimulus funding. Although Southbridge is slated to receive around $500,000 in September, Hanley said the state hasn't even finalized its request for proposals to use that money yet. When that eventually happens, she predicted Southbridge would try to use it for before- and after-school programs "for at-risk students," akin to the ELT program that wasn't renewed.

"After what happened with the banks and GM, they're going to make sure the school districts are held accountable for every penny," she said.

Also uncertain is the district's "underperforming" label. Hanley said she spoke to new state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester but observed, "I didn't get an answer."

According to the state Web site, Gov. Deval Patrick filed legislation last week that would change that designation anyway. If it passes, schools that now bear that label, if they still fit the description, would be termed "readiness acceleration schools." The district having such a school would be required to come up with a "performance contract" and "draft innovation plan" to correct the problems based on a wide range of things, including test scores, attendance, sub-group achievement, and "data related to student health and wellness."

The contract, however, looks at more than just academics. It must address "not less than two" of six areas that include social service and health needs, child welfare and/or police services in the school community, work-related issues, and three areas of professional development. The areas to be addressed are devised by a committee representing various "stakeholders" including staff, administrators, parents, school committee, local businesspeople, social workers and others, it states.

Under some circumstances, the state can put an underperforming district into receivership under "a non-profit entity with a demonstrated record of success in improving low-performing schools or the academic performance of disadvantaged students."

"The commissioner may appoint such receiver only when he determines that: (1) the applicable superintendent is unlikely to implement such plan successfully; or (2) conditions exist in the district that are likely to negatively affect the ability of the superintendent to implement such plan successfully," it states.

Similar requirements would fall on whole districts deemed "underperforming," it adds.

Hanley said she hopes Chester sees that Southbridge no longer needs the "underperforming" label when he visits next month.

"Outside of Southbridge, it would have a huge impact" to change that, she said. "It's hard to attract highly-qualified administrators and highly-qualified teachers to open positions."

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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