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Published in Print: May 29, 1991, as A Case in Point: District Fears Quality Is Suffering as It Cuts Closer to the Bone

A Case in Point: District Fears Quality Is Suffering as It Cuts Closer to the Bone

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Newton, Mass.--Lauren Bisceglia has stopped buying the sturdy canvas out of which her home-economics students have always made tote bags. ''We can't afford that anymore," the Brown Junior High School teacher says.

These days, the totes are cut from cheaper cloth she buys by the pound at a factory-outlet store.

Despite the rising cost of such materials and an increase in the number of students she teaches, Ms. Bisceglia has only $1,800--the same amount she has received for each of the past four years--to buy sewing goods and food supplies for her 300 students.

As long as the students carry a light load in the elegantly stitched bags, Ms. Bisceglia explains, they will hold up fine. But if they use the totes as book bags, the cloth will tear.

While Ms. Bisceglia's forced economies on tote bags are of relatively minor importance in the scheme of things, they epitomize the plight of the school district that employs her. By scaling back on expenditures, both the home-economics teacher and the Newton public schools are getting the job done, but the financial stress is causing the fabric to fray.

In each of the past three years, district officials have been forced to make cutbacks in staffing, services, and programs in order to erase a budget deficit.

"I see a membrane being stretched very tight," said David Michaud, the district's associate superintendent for elementary education. With each new budget cut, "I fear we're fraying a little closer to the center."

Like most school districts in Massachusetts--and throughout New England for that matter--Newton's financial vitality has been sapped by the region's distressed economy.

Irwin Blumer, superintendent of the Newton schools, contends that the nation's public schools can no longer rely on the vagaries of local property taxes and undependable state revenue for their funding.

"It goes beyond Newton and Massachusetts at this point," he said. ''There's something wrong with the whole process."

But this is not a story about a district that has been devastated by financial hardship. No schools are falling down, although Brown's roof did spring a leak this year that its administrators could ill afford to repair. Nor are the children of Newton wanting for a sound education. By all standard measures, students perform at the top of scale.

Indeed, it is a system in which teachers have the opportunity to work with faculty members at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where 4th graders learn U.S. geography and history by becoming mini "travel agents," and where three of the state's 42 allotted National Merit Scholars attend school.

Right up front, the people of Newton want to make it clear they have not been hurt like Holyoke, which was in danger of having its electricity cut off, or Chelsea, which could lose as many as one-third of its teachers, or Brockton or Lawrence, where budget woes have become the norm.

Rather, this is a system with a long history of innovation and excellence in the tradition of Evanston, Ill., and Scarsdale, N.Y.--it is the kind of district that President Bush and the nation's political and business leaders like to lionize.

But if the funding situation does not improve soon, administrators, teachers, and parents here fear, the quality and richness of the education they have provided to generations of children will vanish.

"It's important that we don't sound like we're whining," said Sydra Schnipper, chairman of the Newton School Committee. Other districts ''have never been able to have what we're in danger of losing."

"We're still going to have a good system," she added. "In a sense, it's almost worse to be dismantling. We're already there, and we have to dismantle it."

An All-America City

Lying a dozen miles west of the heart of Boston, Newton is home to some 83,000 residents, nearly 93 percent of them white. Its residents also include refugees from Southeast Asia and recent emigres from Soviet Russia. And its school system hosts a larger contingent of students from inner-city Boston than any oth4er district in the state.

During the past two decades, it has been cited as an All-America City and has been presented with nearly every municipal award a city can receive.

It also has maintained a AAA bond rating, the only city in Massachusetts to do so, boasts Mayor Theodore D. Mann, who is serving his 20th year in office.

Large sections of the city, particularly on the south side, are made up of neighborhoods of stately old homes where, at least by outside appearances, residents live comfortably.

According to the Mayor, though, almost 40 percent of the population lives in low- to moderate-income households, and the city has more than 1,600 subsidized housing units.

In Newton, the majority of children attend the city's 19 public schools. Enrollment for the current academic year stands at 9,488, an increase of 2.3 percent over last year, while 1,894 children attend non-public schools, a 1 percent decline.

When Newton's financial woes began to take seed is difficult to pinpoint. Some people think it goes as far back as 1978, when then-Gov. Edward King imposed a statewide tax cap. But there is no doubt that 1982 was a watershed.

In that year, Massachusetts voters passed Proposition 2, which limits revenue from local property taxes to annual increases of 2.5 percent. The only exemption is for growth from new construction.

The landmark measure also stripped school committees of their fiscal autonomy.

As long as the state's economy was thriving during the era of the so-called "Massachusetts Miracle," Proposition 2 had minimal impact on districts like Newton. But in the past few years, Massachusetts has been at the forefront of the regional recession, and property-tax revenues have been dwindling.

Propositon 2 and the poor economy have collided with a third factor to affect Newton schools. Enrollment is on the rise. The district expects roughly 200 more students next fall.

"We have run out of space," Mr. Blumer, Newton's superintendent, said. "Next year, kids will be coming out of the woodwork."

To relieve the crowding, school officials had hoped to reopen a junior high, one of 12 schools the district had closed in recent years as enrollment ebbed.

But the city, which is leasing the building to paying tenants, will not return the school unless the district can come up with the money to operate it--slightly less than $1 million a year.

Budget Gaps

In 1990, Newton schools suffered a budget shortfall of $1.3 million. This year, the district came up $1.6 million short. But it could have been much worse.

The district had anticipated a $3.6-million deficit, but the state anted up more local aid after Newton and several other municipalities filed suit.

In the end, the district was able to hire back some 30 classroom teachers. Members of the support staff were less fortunate. At the elementary level, for example, 1 writing specialist, 2 math specialists, 1 science specialist, and 1 computer special8ists were cut. The number of curriculum-development positions for gifted students was cut from 4 to 2.

As things stand, next school year will be even more difficult, as the district faces a $3-million deficit. "It may not be over yet," Mr. Blumer, who dismissed all non-tenured employees as of April 15, said.

Trimming around the edges, which the district has done in recent years, will not be sufficient to meet next year's budget limits. Now, the cuts are slicing deeper into the classroom.

Some English and health specialists will be eliminated in the secondary schools; teachers' aides will also be cut, and the district-level director of black achievement will become a half-time position.

Moreover, the budget calls for cutting nearly 11 elementary teachers, 7 junior-high teachers, and 14 senior-high teachers. The elementary schools will also lose a total of 3 teachers of art, music, and physical education.

Since 1989, the state has cut local funding to Newton by 40 percent, according to Mayor Mann. But Newton never relied that much on the state. Less than 10 percent of the city's $146 million budget comes from the state, district officials say.

As for local funding, the Mayor maintains that the schools have gotten more money than other city departments--a 4 percent increase, compared with a citywide cut of 2 percent.

"We're doing less street sweeping, less road repairs," he said. "A third fire truck will be taken out of service."

"I don't think we should wring our hands in despair," he added, "but we must be prepared for some service cutbacks."

But parents, many of whom moved to Newton because of its reputation for fine schools, are dissatisfied with that kind of response.

Linda Puretz and her husband moved to Newton in 1977--primarily because of the educational system.

"Imagine our feeling 13, 14 years later ... of being in a situation where the school system is not what we had hoped for," Ms. Puretz said.

A memorandum from the principal of Bowen Elementary School, where Ms. Puretz's children attend school, outlines what they have to look forward to next year: no room for a computer lab, resulting in limited student access; no room for a nurse's office, meaning reduced nursing support; and 5th-grade classes with 28 students and 6th grades with 29 students.

"The large class sizes have shocked people in a way that other cuts haven't, primarily because this is very visible to people," Ms. Puretz said.

Life at Brown

One recent morning, Brown Junior High was crackling with energy. Students scurried to classes, stopping momentarily to talk to a teacher or to ask a question of their principal.

"Things have to go on despite the fact that we're facing all these cutbacks and crises," said Judy Malone Neville, Brown's principal.

Artwork adorned the hallways, whose walls were clean but scarred for want of an adequate maintenance budget. "I have been waiting five years to get those lockers painted," Ms. Neville said as she escorted a visitor on a tour of the 35-year-old school.

On this day, nearly 100 student members of the band, chorus, and orchestra were on a field trip. Because the school was only able to budget $500 for field trips this year, parents and the school's parent-teacher association chipped in. Even so, the school's administrators ended up transferring some money out of the instructional budget to meet the need.

"We see it as part of the curriculum," said Brenda Brathwaite, the assistant principal at Brown. "It's not an extra."

The students also help to raise and save money. They turn out lights and recycle glass, aluminum, and paper.

Last year, Brown students circulated a petition to stamp out the use of polystyrene in the cafeteria, an initiative that has become a districtwide policy. To beautify the grounds, they have planted shrubs, bulbs, and trees purchased with the proceeds of bake sales and car washes.

In the art room, a student teacher led a class. She lamented that she had not found a job. "I'll go anywhere," she replied to Ms. Neville's inquiry about her prospects.

"We're training teachers," the principal said, "but they're not going to find jobs in Newton."

Indeed, one of the worries of teachers and administrators alike is the general "graying" of the faculty. Since Ms. Neville became principal five years ago, she has had to lay off all non-tenured employees. The youngest faculty member in the building is 32.

Next year, Brown is expecting to add 100 students to the 500 it already has. The swelling student population will likely jeopardize space allotted in the building to a multicultural preschool program. And, like so many other losses Newton faces these days, removal of that program would lead to another casualty: Brown students would no longer be able to take child development as an elective.

The school will, of course, get the additional per-pupil allotment from the state, but the overall staffing ratio--not the pupil-teacher ratio--will increase from 13.9 to 1 to 15 to 1.

"On the surface, one or two doesn't sound like a lot," Ms. Brathwaite, Brown's assistant principal, said. "But if it's a trend, then I think that will have an impact."

George MacIver, an English and social-studies teacher at Brown, already has a class with 31 students, but said he does not mind because he wants to teach them all.

"I don't listen much to the voices of gloom and doom out there," he said.

But, if the budget crunch continues, there has been talk that teach4ers will be asked to pick up another class. And that does concern Mr. MacIver.

The English and social-studies teacher gives frequent writing assignments to the 110 students he already has with the understanding that they will be returned, together with plenty of comments, in one or two days.

If he had to add another class, "it would change my teaching," said Mr. MacIver who puts in two to three hours at home after a nine-hour day at school. "I would simply have to give fewer papers."

More often than not, the effects of the financial crisis have been subtle.

Workbooks are still given to the foreign-language students, but, because they must now be reused, students are asked not to write in them.

Thousands of dollars in audio-visual equipment sits idle because there is no longer anyone around with the time or expertise to run it.

Computers, microscopes, and other expensive pieces of equipment fall into disrepair. "The money is not going to be there to maintain the equipment that breaks down," said Clyde DeBay, who teaches mathematics and life sciences at Brown.

Because of the imminent classroom shortages, teachers will be shuffled from one laboratory to another.

As a result, Mr. DeBay is concerned that lab preparation will be affected and that there will be fewer materials for students to work with. Instead of one specimen for every two students, he said, groups of children will watch over the teacher's shoulder.

Two years ago, "20 kids walked into my room, and I had 12 sewing machines," Ms. Bisceglia said. She borrowed four from other schools and managed to buy two.

"More of them have broken down since," she said, "so now I'm back to where I was two years ago." Because the repairman makes one visit a year, she repairs what she can herself.

But these are only the more visible signs of the impact the lack of money is having on the district.

What cannot be seen is more destructive, members of the school community say.

"Dr. Blumer has taken care to maintain the integrity of the classroom," said Norah Wylie, co-president of the district's pta Council. "But ... the general public looks at the schools and sees they still have this art and music," and are then skeptical that the schools are in financial trouble.

Painful Erosion

When money grew tight, the school committee made a tradeoff. What money was available would be used to concentrate on people, not on buildings.

"What is extremely painful is watching the erosion of these kinds of things," said Jennifer Huntington, vice chairman of the school committee.

A tradition at Horace Mann Elementary School was recorder lessons for its 3rd graders, spared last year only because a mild winter resulted in lower-than-anticipated fuel costs.

A decades-old environmental program for the district's 6th-graders did not survive, however. The program incorporated science curricula into a camping trip.

"Is it devastating if you don't have recorder lessons? Of course not," Ms. Wylie of the pta Council said. "What concerns me is the lack of that broadening experience. If I want my kids to have music lessons, I will make sure they get music les4sons. There are families in Newton that can't say that."

"I'm so sick of education being seen as [whether this particular cut] will be devastating," Ms. Wylie continued. "I hate to think that providing the bare bones is sufficient."

Felice Mendell's daughter is academically gifted, and her teachers have responded by giving her extra work to challenge her. "I don't know whether the teachers will have that time next year," Ms. Mendell said.

To find out how the budget cutbacks were affecting her school, Andi Edson, a kindergarten teacher at Underwood Elementary School, surveyed her fellow teachers earlier this year. She found three areas of major impact: decreasing support from coordinators and specialists, dwindling supplies, and weakening morale.

Within those areas, teachers noted a scarcity of materials at the central office; their inability to learn about new curriculum; a severe cutback in staff development, including summer programs; and the loss of the Teachers' Center, which offered teaching support and inexpensive materials for the classroom.

"Newton had so many services that made it easy for you to be a teacher," said Jean Comeau, a 1st-grade teacher at Underwood. "Now, you really have to do that for yourself."

She and several other colleagues at Underwood have written grant proposals for materials and programs that, at one time, the school district would have bought without hesitation. Ms. Comeau, for instance, received a $100 grant for computer software to augment a new reading series.

"You try to make up for what isn't there," she said. But "there has to come a time when you reach a [limit], where you can't do it anymore."

Teacher Goodwill

Throughout the community, it is the dedication of the distict's teaching corps that is credited with keeping the system going through this rough time.

"We are working on the goodwill of the teachers," said Dotty Engler, a parent and community activist.

At Brown Junior High, the wood-crafts teacher gives his leftovers to the art teacher, who visits the dump for supplies. The metal-shop teacher asks students to bring in materials, while Ms. Bisceglia's home-economics students bring food from home and design their own sewing patterns rather than buy new ones.

After the curriculum coordinator for junior-high English and social studies was cut, the departments from the two junior highs pulled together to do the job themselves.

"We will collectively assume the responsibility that one person had earlier," said George Roberts, chairman of social studies and English at Brown. "This decision was forced upon us because of the fiscal crisis. It's what we should have been doing anyway."

Veteran teachers have voluntarily been serving as mentors to new teachers in the system, and, to offset a decline in in-service opportunities, teachers have formed study groups to enhance their teaching skills.

"People are taking up the slack," said Ms. Schnipper of the school committee. But she, too, acknowledged that "there is a limit."

Mayor Mann said the time is ripe to marshal the volunteer forces. He, for example, called a meeting of all the athletic providers in the area to see if they could come up with some solution to funding school sports programs.

"Educators have to be more creative," the Mayor said. "They should become excited and become stimulated with the challenge of doing more with less. Too many of our educators are quitters."

Picking up the Slack

On a recent Monday night, a dozen parents volunteered to spend three hours working the phone banks to gauge the sentiment of Newton voters toward increasing the property tax to raise more funds for education. A different group of parents had been there the night before; other groups would follow each night for the rest of the week.

Like teachers, parents have been asked to pick up the slack in the schools.

Kathy Ennis, the mother of two school-age children, handled one phone. She could afford to send her children to private schools by making other financial sacrifices.

But "I'm not interested in private education for my children," she said. "I believe in the kind of diversity and egalitarian spirit of a public ed4ucation."

To satisfy her curiosity, Ms. Engler added up all the checks she had written for her three children's incidental schooling last year. The total came to $1,100.

The pta has also been generous, donating approximately $750,000 a year to the schools in each of the past few years.

Underwood Elementary's pta gave each teacher $100 this year to spend on whatever he or she needed. "In a sense, we felt richer this year,'' said Rose Madsen, a 4th-grade teacher. "The good part of this, and I don't know how long it's going to last, is we are feeling more support than if the school district were just giving us money."

As a result of staff dedication and resourcefulness and the pta's generosity, Underwood has been able to purchase some materials it otherwise would not have had, said its principal, Carmella Nadeau.

"Those kinds of things you can always find the money for. It's the cutbacks in personnel ..." she said, shaking her head.

Earlier this year, Ms. Nadeau gave the school committee an example of what the personnel cutbacks have already meant in real terms. In the past, an Underwood teacher had experienced difficulty in explaining a new concept to her 3rd-grade class. She met with the math specialist, who helped her develop some strategies that proved successful.

"This interaction could not take place this year," she said, since the position had been eliminated. The same, she said, held true for the computer and writing specialists as well.

"With the chipping away of programs," Ms. Nadeau told the school committee, "I wonder how much longer before we will be able to maintain the integrity of programs as we have known it."

No one believes that a total collapse in quality will happen overnight or even next year, but the fear is that, once the district slips too far, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to bring it back.

Test scores for now are still among the best in the state. Of two statewide tests, the more difficult is the assessment test of reading, math, science, and social studies for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders. Newton scores at a minimum in the 84th percentile in all grade levels and in all subject matters, according to Allan S. Hartman, director of research for the state education department.

Furthermore, Newton sends more than 70 percent of its high-school graduates on to four-year colleges, compared with a statewide average of 45 percent, Mr. Hartman said.

But teachers in the district fear what may happen if and when those measurements start to slip.

"There is concern that teachers may unfairly bear the brunt of criticism," said Tony Croce, president of the Newton Teachers Association. "Teachers are more than simply employees. They have an investment in their work. For them now to look around and see it dying on the vine ... affects people's sense of pride."

Now in the last year of a three-year contract, the teachers are supposed to get a 6.5 percent salary increase next year. How the financial situation will affect the contract is unclear, but there are undercurrents of unrest.

The Mayor has asked teachers, along with other municipal employees, to pay more of the cost of their health insurance.

That some of the seams in the community are unraveling became evident last spring in the aftermath of a special election called to override Proposition 2. Some members of the education community felt betrayed when the Mayor gave the district an additional $2 million only weeks before the election, an action they believed undermined their credibility.

The override was defeated, in part, supporters believe, because it was difficult to sell higher property taxes to the 80 percent of the residents who do not have children in the public schools.

Both the Mayor and Superintendent Blumer say that the money was not mysteriously found, but was a last-minute offering from the state.

"Who is the villain in this? No one," Mr. Blumer said. "The Mayor did give to the best of his ability to do so. If the revenue is not there, it's not there."

Two years ago, the district started charging $25 user fees for high-school students who wanted to play sports. This year, the school committee voted to raise the fee to $50 and to introduce a $25 fee at the junior-high level. Junior-high students will also pay a fee for some music and drama programs. Later this month, the school committee will vote on a $100 user fee for high-school students.

Faculty and staff members will be asked to identify any student who may not be able to afford the fee.

"I will never have--never have--any student who wants to play a sport be prevented from playing a sport because of money," Mr. Blumer said.

But the whole concept does not sit well with the community.

"We're saying, 'Parents, you pay for what the public used to think was for the public good,"' said Jerrold Katz, principal of Bowen Elementary.

At the behest of a group of teachers, the superintendent has also created a new half-time position at a cost of $25,000 for a staff person to seek grants.

The teachers made such a compelling case that, "even with dwindling resources, we are willing to take a risk," said Mr. Blumer, who will evaluate the program at the end of two years.

Meanwhile, most people in the Newton schools appear to be ready to ride out the rough times.

Ruth Chapman twice left the school system for the business world--only to return both times.

"Newton is still a place where teachers can transform a stage into a rain forest," the principal of the Angier School said. "That's Newton, that's why I'm here. As frustrated at times and as tired as I can be ... I still say I will come back next year."

Vol. 10, Issue 36, Page 1

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