October 22, 2014
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Raises cut from schools budget

Budget work sessions aren't over yet, but the Cranston School Committee has made a dent in their work, shaving off roughly $1.3 million by eliminating raises for staff.

Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi proposed the budget amendment eliminating those raises, which would have cost the district nearly $1.8 million for teachers, teacher assistants, administrators, tech assistants and bus drivers. She pointed out that the custodians agreed to a 15 percent pay cut, and said that doling out raises at the same time would be unfair.

"We are a team and that needs to be recognized. When one group struggles, we all struggle," she said. "When one group sacrifices as much as this group has, in my opinion, it's unfair for any other individual or group of individuals to receive a pay raise."

The amendment passed 5-1, with Michael Traficante as the only dissenting voice. Paula McFarland was not present at the meeting.

"I have mixed emotions. We have people in this school department who have not received a raise in six or seven years," Traficante said.

He suggested approving the budget with the raises in place to see if the city would be willing to make that investment.

"Let's find out when the City Council and the mayor are going to become educationally friendly. I'm sick and tired of us taking a backseat to safety services, senior services and public works," he said.

Cranston teachers won't be getting any raises, but their concerns about cuts to the middle school were addressed. Under Superintendent Dr. Judy Lundsten's budget proposal, the district would have dropped one team at each of the city's three middle schools - a move that was opposed by several speakers at last Thursday's meeting. The change would free up funds for a more intense math intervention program, which Lundsten believes is necessary to prepare students for the NECAP test, a graduation requirement.

Bain Middle School teacher Nathan Goodrich called the cuts "educationally and fiscally irresponsible."

"I am deeply troubled by the proposed budget cuts. We should not be cutting staff and overloading classes," said CTA President Lizbeth Larkin.

She accused state officials of weighing standardized testing too heavily, saying, "Under the guise of education reform, [they] have turned our students into a test score."

Western Hills teacher Michaela Horta agreed, and said that if the district were to make these cuts to middle schools, it could ultimately tip the scales - giving parents a reason to look elsewhere for their children.

"Middle school students depend on social and academic guidance. Teacher to student ratio is key to student learning," she said. "Running our schools in a business-like manner with the money as the primary focus only results in poor customer service. Our students will be the ones to suffer."

Committee member Jeff Gale agreed that student to teacher ratio is something the district should be careful with.

"That's something that's a big concern of mine," he said.

One of the justifications for the proposal is that student enrollment is down. If that is the case, Park View teacher Joanne Spaziano suggested that the city revisit boundaries.

The teachers' fears were assuaged, though, as Iannazzi introduced an amendment to remove those middle school cuts from the budget, at an additional cost of approximately $482,000. The committee passed the amendment unanimously, but Iannazzi urged the teachers present to follow through with their advocacy.

"You have to play a role by attending the finance committee before the council and voicing your concern about further cuts to the middle school level," she said.

Not all staffing decisions were made last week, as the fate of the family and consumer sciences program remains unclear. The budget proposal includes cuts to the program, but the committee did not take up that issue yet.

They did vote on a special education contingency fund, however. In the proposed budget, District CFO Joe Balducci removed the fund and instead increased the overall special education budget by $1.4 million in response, in part, to the city's cuts to that fund in the past. Last year, Mayor Allan Fung cut the special education contingency fund from $650,000 to $150,000. The City Council ultimately increased that account to $370,000.

Committee member Stephanie Culhane proposed reinstating that contingency fund and requesting the city support it with $693,000. The committee unanimously approved the amendment.

The other major topic discussed at the work session was the district's approach to math intervention. Assistant Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse presented two potential plans for the district. In the first plan, there would be two math interventionists at each middle school and a math professional development specialist at each building. There would also be summer programs for at-risk students (at a cost of $15,000 per middle school) and after-school programming, which would cost $75,000.

Altogether, this plan would cost $450,000 from the budget.

The second plan would eliminate the professional development specialist, adding just six positions instead of nine, with the expectation that those teachers would also cover professional development.

"We would like to offer more exciting, or student-passionate programs, but it is the reality we are living with, with the math crisis that is unfortunately happening in this state right now," Nota-Masse said.

Traficante put the breaks on a vote, though, saying that one night wasn't enough time to consider such an important decision.

"I don't think we should be approving any plan tonight," he said.

Approval of an intervention program was tabled, and further amendments will be proposed at the Feb. 26 meeting of the School Committee, which will take place at Western Hills. Executive session begins at 5 p.m.

In other school news, Alan Davis, a retired Cranston Police officer, volunteered to serve as the district's security supervisor at no cost. The budget proposal includes $7,500 for that position, which he said could be donated to an after-school music program - presumably BASICS - in lieu of payment.

"Where do I sign up for that job?" he asked. "There is a need for security officers in the schools. I'll put my money where my mouth is."


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