Mashpee Town Meeting Rejects School Funding Request

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By: Brian Kehrl
Published: 05/07/10

The Mashpee School District will be preparing to cut 18 positions before the next school year and the town stabilization fund will remain untapped after Town Meeting on Monday night defeated Article 21.

The petition article, filed by members of the Mashpee School Committee, fell far short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. The vote came down with 135 against, 132 in favor.

School committee Chairman Richard J. Bailey said after the meeting that he is not sure how the committee, which is scheduled to meet on Thursday evening next week, will proceed.

Superintendent Ann M. Bradshaw has said the $18.3 million budget approved for the school department will require 18 positions to be cut, including 11 teachers, one special education administrator, four paraprofessionals, and two secretaries. Had Article 21 passed, Ms. Bradshaw said at Town Meeting, the school district would have had to cut 10 positions.

“I’m disappointed, of course,” Mr. Bailey said in a prepared statement distributed after Town Meeting. “We tried to do two things with Article 21: first, secure additional funds for the school department so that reductions in force and other cutbacks could be minimized; and second, we wanted to engage the town in constructive conversations about our needs. We failed on both accounts, not through lack of effort."

Mr. Bailey said at issue in the school budget moving forward will be whether projected state education aid is further decreased. Indications from Beacon Hill are that Mashpee could lose an additional $180,000. “That would mean more layoffs,” he said.

Town Manager Joyce M. Mason said after the meeting that she pledged not to hold the schools responsible for any decreases in Chapter 70 aid. “I was going to try to find the money to close that gap,” she said. “There still is the commitment on the 180. I will not go back to the schools for it.”

The more than 30-minute debate on the article, which was reduced from $450,000 to a request for $295,000 from the town’s $3.1 million stabilization fund, was marked by strong arguments and poignant statements by advocates for both sides of the issue.

Ms. Bradshaw, Mr. Bailey, and several parents spoke in favor of the article, while Selectman Theresa M. Cook, town Accountant Dawn M. Thayer, and other town officials and employees spoke against it.

While there is often a clear turning point in debates at Town Meeting, a question or comment that seems to turn the tide against an article, no such single statement was apparent in the discussion of Article 21. Instead, it seemed to be a steady barrage of statements that damaged the case for the additional funding.

Janice M. Mills, a longtime school committee member, said the school budget had not become “dire,” a threshhold she said needed to be crossed before asking for stabilization funds.

Ms. Thayer, the town’s accountant and mother of a student in the school system, said she had analyzed the budget figures provided by the school committee and found that the department could pay all its teachers without the additional funding.

Selectman Don D. Myers questioned the practice of prepaying costs for the following year.

Jill Allen, a Mashpee school bus driver, said she does not understand how school committee members can claim to need the extra money when they recently gave significant raises to several administrative assistants, a move the committee said was needed to make their pay more commensurate with other towns.

Lisa Frye, assistant town accountant and a former school employee and volunteer, said school officials in the past have taken the approach of not providing transparent figures, because they could count on parents to turn out to support their budget. That approach has created an “us versus them” aspect to the whole process from the outset.

And Ralph J. Marcelli, a former school committee member, railed against the school district, arguing that the average teacher is paid $70,000, the district spends $500,000 a year on teacher training, and yet the district’s performance on standardized test scores has been poor. “Throwing more money at the problem is not going to solve it,” he said.

The school committee, however, was not without its passionate defenders. Cherie J. Criasia, whose husband is a teacher, received perhaps the loudest applause of the debate for a comment about the selectmen’s criticism that the school committee had not filed its budget into the town computer system and the high number of students who must share a computer, a statistic presented by Ms. Bradshaw. While there are 10 Mashpee students per computer, other towns nearby towns have 3:1 or 4:1 ratios.

“Maybe they couldn’t submit the budget because they had to wait until 10 kids were done with a computer,” Ms. Criasia said. “That is a disgusting statistic. Shame on you. You get that money from wherever you can. These are the people who will be sitting in your seats some day. ”

After the meeting, Ms. Criasia’s husband, James R. Criasia, a biology teacher at Mashpee High School, said, “People don’t realize that when you see MCAS and SAT scores for the top schools in the state, those are schools that get 60 to 70 percent of those towns’ budgets. Those towns made the decision that schools were more important than police and fire. This town has made the decision that police and fire are more important than the schools.”

Both Chief Rodney C. Collins of the Mashpee Police Department and Chief George W. Baker Jr. of the Mashpee Fire Department spoke out during the debate,

Chief Baker argued that the school committee could come back at October Town Meeting, with more information on specific enrollment and costs, to request more money, if it is needed. He said the fire department has taken a $400,000 budget cut.

Chief Collins questioned what the town would do if a disaster strikes and the stabilization fund has been depleted. He said every department has been impacted and asked to cut back. He said budget recommendations suggest maintaining 10 percent of the annual operating budget in stabilization funds, a level that the town is already below.

Mr. Bailey, however, took issue with the role played by other department heads. In a statement provided to the Enterprise after the meeting, which Mr. Bailey said was prepared along with a companion statement to be distributed should Article 21 have passed, he said, “I was also extremely disappointed that other town departments, who report in to the town manager, chose to take sides in this issue. Our petition article was selected as a funding mechanism over other possibilities that could have either raised taxes or sought funds from other town departments. So their vocal opposition was quite disheartening and frankly unnecessary.”

Mr. Bailey, in an explanation echoed by fellow committee member Jose L. Franco and Ms. Bradshaw, said the school committee cannot follow Chief Baker’s suggestion and use October Town Meeting to request more money, because the class sizes and schedules will have already been set.

School committee member Kathy G. Stanley said, “That would be utter chaos. You can’t do that to the school system.”

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