Last Wednesday, over 100 residents, parents and staff protested proposed budget cuts for Williamstown Elementary School (WES) for the 2017 fiscal year at a public hearing in the WES auditorium, according to iBerkshires [“Williamstown School Officials Seek to Restore Budget Cuts,” March 10, 2016; “Williamstown Superintendent Explains School Cuts to Parents,” March 5, 2016]. Given public opinion, the Williamstown School Committee asked Superintendent Douglas Dias to restore some of the cuts before sending the final budget to the Finance Committee by March 28.
The hearing included a presentation from Dias, public comments and committee deliberation.
Dias presented the proposed budgets cuts as an alternative to reliance on dwindling school-choice reserves. The school-choice reserve fund has decreased from $326,788 at the end of the 2012 fiscal year to $57,000 this year.
At a preliminary meeting on March 3, hosted by the WES Parent-Teacher Organization, Dias said, “The biggest reserve fund districts use is school-choice. We save for unexpected, unforeseen expenses, like new boilers. Fortunately, we have a building fund [funded by the College at the time the school was built], but what if all of a sudden there is a large influx of kids?”
WES receives $5000 per school-choice student, defined as a student who lives outside the district and fills under-enrolled classrooms, but the district issues a portion of this money to cover operating expenses.
The proposed 2017 budget is down by approximately $19,000, or 0.29 percent, but increases the appropriated portion, the potion paid by taxpayers, by more than $200,000, or 3.79 percent.
This plan would cut two teachers, four paraprofessionals, several enrichment programs and reduce its pre-kindergarten Side by Side program from the current full-day program to two half-day sessions.
“We must be able to address what we see as a budgetary shortfall,” Dias said. “We need a concrete plan to build up reserves. We need to work with the community to ensure all our kids are getting the support they need.”
Members of the WES community fear that losing successful teachers and programs will have long term effects on the school. For over two hours, parents and staff asked questions about the proposed budget cuts.
Maury Lawson, who has children who attended the full-day preschool program, said, “We’re talking about a program that did wonders … I don’t think it would be fiscally responsible to close it. I think we’re going to be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Parents are concerned that two half-days would not provide the necessary experience for children with special needs, but school officials say the program is being reconfigured with that in mind.
Sharon Claffey teared up as she shared how the program had helped her daughter build friendship and develop community.
There is currently a Change.org petition in support of the full-day preschool that had 663 signers as of Sunday afternoon.
The school committee will convene tonight to discuss the new proposal from Dias before submitting a final version of the budget to the Finance Committee.
Fern Murtagh, a full-time preschool teacher, addressed the school committee: “I would like to urge you to vote on a budget that supports quality, inclusive early education. Let the Finance Committee of William-stown, who has studied the town finances, decide if funding a budget that supports quality early education along with maintaining quality education in the upper grades, is important to this town.”