WAKEFIELD - How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
State Rep. Mark Falzone (D-Saugus) used this old adage to make his final point after fielding questions from concerned citizens and School Committee members at last night’s public budget hearing in the high school’s John A. Volpe Library.
Joining Falzone was Senate Minority Leader Richard R. Tisei (R-Wakefield).
Superintendent of Schools Joan Landers said that the turnout of more than 100 people validated the community’s commitment to quality education in the town’s schools. “I’m thrilled that so many are here to show their support,” she said.
We don't have a bad school system in this town. I've been going to Wakefield public schools since preschool, and I've had fine teachers and gotten a fine education. We just happen to be in something of a financial muddle.
The two legislators were asked questions ranging from whether they support closing corporate loopholes to what they thought about introducing casinos to the Commonwealth to increase revenue stream. The Chapter 70 account, the major line-item of state aid to public elementary and secondary schools, also was heavily discussed. In addition to providing state aid to support school operations, Chapter 70 also establishes minimum spending requirements for each school district and minimum requirements for each municipality’s share of school costs.
One mother, whose child is a first-grade student at Greenwood School, said she is extremely concerned about the school budget. “Oil alone has seen a 70 percent increase,” she said. “We cannot run schools under these conditions. MCAS scores have gone down. Money needs to be invested in curriculum and staff. There’s no one to fix computers when they go down. I want to see the school budget get the same respect the quieting of train horns in the town is getting.”
Yeah, how about that technology department? Oh, and remember this post about train horns?
Another mother, whose children are students at Galvin Middle School, objected to the elimination of library aides. “Good libraries impact literacy, academic achievement and technology skills,” she said. “A library without aides is a just a collection of materials. Someone needs to help students understand the material.”
A library without librarians? That's just ludicrous.
Peter DeRoeve, assistant superintendent for personnel and finance, offered reassurance that positions recently cut from the budget would be reinstated. “We’re looking at $300,000 in adjustments,” he said.
The total bottom line budget is $28,123,670 for fiscal 2009, which begins this year on July 1 and ends June 30, 2009.
Though this was welcome news, it did nothing to dispel Jim Sullivan’s concerns about his child not having access to a computer lab. “Kids aren’t another piece of equipment we can get another year out of. Whatever dollars we get need to be spent appropriately,” he said.
No comp lab in G-wood? Wow, that school's in even worse shape than I thought!
The most vexing problem of all - where will the money come from - remained largely unsolved, though both Falzone and Tisei said they are doing everything they can to see that the town gets its fair share of money. “We fight tirelessly for Wakefield,” said Falzone.
Tisei said that he and other legislators are hearing the same concerns expressed at last night’s meeting all over the state. “Communities that have been well run are the ones hitting the wall,” he said. Tisei added that the town does a good job managing the budget but that alarm bells are going off.
“The universal health care bill could bankrupt the state,” he said. “We’re in for a tough budget year.”
Gov. Deval Patrick will disclose his budget today but Tisei said he didn’t know if state aid for the town had been factored in. If it is, the School Department could expect between $180,000 and $300,000 in new Chapter 70 money.
Tisei also said there are 97 communities throughout the state that have not had local aid restored when there is a fiscal crisis. Wakefield, he said, is one of the 97.
“A return to level funding would require about $31 million and $121,000 would be Wakefield’s share,” he said.
A rainy day account funded by lottery money currently has $2.2 billion that could be spread among communities to stabilize underfunded school budgets. Tisei commented that it’s “pouring locally,” but considering Tuesday’s actions in the marketplace, he thought it would be unwise to tap this fund for a one-time fix. “We’re facing a $1.5 billion deficit this year,” he said. “If a recession continues for more than a year, we’ll need those funds.”
Be wary of the recession. Someone's gotta pay for all that.
School Committee member Carmen Urbonas said that if Chapter 70 is not reformed, the gap will only widen. “Wakefield cannot continue to sit here and be grateful for what we get. We keep hearing next year is going to be worse - there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”
I just hope the students of future years will receive the education they deserve from the great school system in this town. But it's gonna take money.