By GAYLA CAWLEY
SWAMPSCOTT — With school officials still scrambling with how to bridge a $275,000 budget deficit, the Swampscott Education Association, the teachers’ union, fought back after taking some heat from town officials last week for rejecting their proposed contract, and potentially seeking higher raises.
Parents are not happy that the school department is considering transitioning full-day kindergarten to a half-day program at no charge. Parents would have to pay tuition for the full-day program. School officials have asked the town to increase their allocation to bridge the gap instead.
Teachers representing the union voiced their concerns in prepared statements to the school committee Wednesday night.
“In recent weeks, teachers have been described as budget busters and likened to video game characters gobbling up resources, when in reality, you can easily check the facts and see that Swampscott does not spend an extraordinary amount of its budget on public schools when you compare us to districts around the state most like us,” said Allison Norton, a teacher at Stanley School, who spoke on behalf of the union.
Norton was referring to a comparison made by Peter Spellios, a selectman, at last week’s Board of Selectmen meeting, who said he would not advocate for allocating more town funds to the school department, if it would potentially go toward payroll, rather than keeping programs, such as full-day kindergarten. As 80 percent of the school budget is already devoted to salaries, he said contractual increases are outpacing the revenue the town can give to the schools. He compared it to feeding a Pac Man that keeps eating the programming.
“Town officials have the audacity to suggest that any renegotiating of a contract with teachers will jeopardize free, full-day kindergarten,” Norton said. “In fact, the school committee and administrators were considering charging for free full-day kindergarten well before the contract ratification failed. And for the record, the Swampscott Education Association wholeheartedly supports free access to full-day kindergarten.”
Superintendent Pamela Angelakis said it was not true that school officials were considering charging for free full-day kindergarten beforehand. She said that was something decided in the 11th hour when cuts were being looked at to bridge the deficit.
The committee was initially scheduled to vote on their proposed $30.49 million FY18 budget Wednesday. Instead, the committee postponed that vote until Feb. 16, until after the town budget is presented at the Board of Selectmen meeting Feb. 15.
After revolving funds and grants are taken into account, the school district budgeted for $28,272,500 in town allocation. But the town is only allocating an additional $750,000 from last year’s amount, or $27,997,500. Therein, lies the $275,000 deficit.
School officials are faced with a scenario where the $750,000 increase in town allocation is not enough to cover their teacher- and staff-anticipated salary increases. In December, Evan Katz, school business administrator, projected there would be $960,000 in salary increases for school employees and teachers, based on a then-anticipated 1.5 percent raise for educators.
Catie Porter, a Swampscott teacher speaking on behalf of the union, disputed that figure. She said the proposed raise would not increase salary by $960,000, but by approximately $200,000. The remainder is salary advances due to teachers staying in the district or advancing their degree.
After overwhelmingly rejecting their contract, the teachers’ union issued a statement that the members questioned the dramatic change in statement about the budget deficit, which was reported at $1.6 million at the start of contract mediation when salary bargaining was underway and was more recently pegged at $275,000 after a tentative agreement was reached.
Nancy Hanlon, SEA president, issued a further statement that the rejection was based on several factors, the least of which was monetary, and that the union believes that teachers are not being treated with respect as professionals. Those statements were echoed Wednesday night by teachers speaking on behalf of the union.
Carin Marshall, chairwoman of the school committee, said salaries, which total 80 percent of the school budget, have grown to dollar amounts that exceed what the town can afford to allocate to the school district each year.
For the past two years, she said, the town has given the schools unprecedented increases in allocation, which it has informed them is not sustainable and cannot continue. To address the issue, she said the committee decided that salary increases would be held to a 1.5 percent limit.
Marshall said successful negotiations within that 1.5 percent salary increase limit occurred with other staff, including administrators and the superintendent. She said the teachers were offered a package with 1.5 percent raises, and budget constraints were shared.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that Swampscott does not value our teachers or the work that they do,” Marshall said. “I have seen and heard statements that money was not the only or most important factor in why the agreement failed. I cannot speak to that. What I can say is that I was present for that year’s worth of negotiation sessions and I can categorically say that in every instance, it was all about the money. There were many other issues and items discussed on both sides, but in the end, they were always tied back to the money.”
Also discussed was how potential half-day kindergarten would work. Martha Raymond, director of student services, said after noon, kindergarten teachers already cannot introduce new curriculum during a full-day program. From 8:15 a.m. to noon, the schedule wouldn’t change at all. She said parents have expressed concern that a full-day tuition program would mean daycare after 12 p.m., but she said that wasn’t true. Between 12 and 2:15 p.m., Raymond said teachers are working on the social emotional development of kids.
“It does not mean I support it,” said Angelakis of half-day kindergarten. “This is just a discussion. It is not a vote of support.”
To reduce the initial $1.5 million budget gap to $275,000, there have been revenue increases of $240,000, personnel transition savings of $200,000, program reductions of $314,000, and the $300,000 budgeted for the unknown amount of students who may join the district and require special education services has been eliminated.
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Gayla Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.