Balancing the Budget

by Jaesuh Lee, Julia Lee, Jacob Tomaneng & Jonathan Wei, News Editors & News Reporters
photos by Ines Koci

On Thursday, March 31, over 100 people rallied outside Newton City Hall in response to the Newton Public Schools (NPS) proposed budget for fiscal year 2023.

The budget, which was proposed on March 23, included significant cuts to math and literacy support at elementary and middle schools, in addition to reductions of up to 74 positions across the district, including up to 50 teachers. This staffing reduction was forecasted to create a greater number of classes with more than 25 students and fewer electives.

Additionally, the plan included a cut in guidance counselor positions throughout middle and high schools, increasing the student-to-counselor ratio.

Superintendent David Fleishman pointed to a decrease in enrollment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, lack of revenue from building rentals, the increased cost of substitute teachers and risin costs for special education programs as the primary reasons for the budget imbalance. 

Judd West, a fourth-grade teacher at Zervas Elementary School, said that the increase in class sizes ensured by the budget proposal would have hindered teachers’ ability to provide the same standard of education to students.

“Class size is probably the number one most important factor when it comes to having a successful learning and teaching experience … especially at elementary schools, the class size numbers are so key for kids that young,” he said. “Unfortunately, budget cuts mean each student is just getting less attention, and then the ability to manage a class becomes more challenging.”

NPS parent and Parent-Teacher Organization Co-President Penny Johnson* said that the proposed cuts could give families with access to outside resources like the Russian School of Mathematics an advantage over families without them.

South band director Lisa Linde said that the proposal made her worried about the budget cuts’ effects on the music program, as they have historically targeted arts faculty, which limits music classes and opportunities for students.

“NAfME, which is the National Association for Music Education, has this opportunity to learn a set of standards where they qualify you as a basic-level program or a quality-level program,” she said. “We used to be in many areas a quality-level program, and we have moved down to the basic level. We’ve gotten rid of an improvisation specialist. We’ve gotten rid of our orchestra specialist.”

Johnson attended the protest on March 31. She said that with the proposed budget cuts, her family would lose the extra support in math and reading that her child is receiving from his elementary school.

“He has an IEP, and he is able to get those services through [educational support staff], and right now he gets services that aren’t included in his IEP because his school has the ability to serve him with those, but once they get rid of these positions … it’ll be on us parents,” she said.

Following the plan’s announcement, teachers and community members criticized its proposed reductions, citing the $63 million that the city received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) as funds that could be allocated to alleviate the budget gaps. 

South math and physics teacher Ryan Normandin said that while the ARPA funds posed a short-term solution to the issue of budget gaps, the district still lacks a longer-term resolution to future financial shortfalls.

“People want the mayor to use ARPA funds for this; she probably shouldn’t take a short-term solution,” he said. “But in the long term, we need to fix something because next year we’re going to be in this situation. We’re going to have another set of cuts and next year, another set of cuts unless we actually find a way to generate more sources of revenue.”

Amidst community backlash to the March 23 spending cuts, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller announced a reversal in policy which authorized a 3.5% increase in funding for NPS. The additional funds reversed many of the initial plan’s cuts.

School Committee member Christopher Brezki said that he supported the readdition of funds to preserve student services.

“We’re restoring the math and literacy interventionist at the elementary school level,” he said. “We’re making sure we have enough guidance counselors and making sure that we have appropriate staffing so that we don’t have that odd three-quarter team where we wouldn’t have a subject teacher in a cohort.”

School Committee member Cove Davis said that mental health was a priority throughout the budget decision process.

“I’d like to restore [mental health services] more and be able to give more to the high school in that area. Whether it’s guidance counselors or social workers or even just special programming, I think that’d be really important,” she said.

Normandin said that the district should avoid cuts to NPS in the coming years.

“If you cut off the legs of these schools, you have all of these elementary [and] middle school kids who are going to be reading far below level because they don’t have the support they need in order to achieve where they can,” he said. 

“That’s going to have an effect at the high school in five to 10 years because we’re going to be getting students who are just not at the place that we are used to them being at when they come in here.”