Wareham school officials propose extreme cost-cutting measures due to budget shortfall
A massive, radical overhaul in how Wareham Public Schools operate was proposed Wednesday night by administrators to bridge a $2 million gap in next year’s budget. Drastic staff cuts, charging for transportation, changes in school leadership positions and closing Minot Forest Elementary are among the changes being considered.
At the School Committee's meeting, a packed auditorium of more than 100 concerned, outraged residents, educators, parents and students – “far and away the most people we’ve ever had for a budget discussion,” said Business Manager Michael MacMillan – expressed their concerns.
A budget of just under $31 million would maintain school services, but the town’s draft budget has allocated $28.4 million to schools due to lackluster revenues available to the town. At the March 14 School Committee meeting there will be a vote on the final budget. The meeting is set for 7 p.m. in the Wareham Middle School auditorium. MacMillan proposed four ways to close the budget gap in the meantime.
School principals have identified positions that can be reduced with minimal disruption to students, class sizes and programs. MacMillan said district leaders propose eliminating 33 full-time positions. These positions would be cut from every department, said Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood at the meeting. She noted the district is looking at equity when making cuts.
“Every area will be touched,” Shaver-Hood said.
Staff has been reduced 19 percent since 2011, with 67 positions cut. This new round of cuts would save approximately $500,000, MacMillan said.
Closing Minot Forest Elementary
Since there are already plans to combine the elementary schools, MacMillan said officials hope to “realize some of those financial benefits ahead of time.” That would include closing Minot Forest Elementary and moving students to Decas Elementary temporarily.
“It’s not going to be easy…but it’s something we think we can do for the next couple of years,” MacMillan said.
This new configuration would see Decas Elementary with approximately 800 students attending kindergarten through third grade. Since that is a greater capacity than the building can hold, portable classrooms would be added to accommodate students.
The School Building Committee is working on a preliminary design proposal for a new, combined elementary school and has been considering a rebuild of Minot Forest Elementary. The new school would accommodate approximately 1,020 students from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade.
Wareham Middle School would become home to fourth through seventh grade students, with approximately 767 students attending. Recess would be held in the school’s fields, since there are no playgrounds at the middle school, which concerned some parents of fourth graders.
Eighth graders would move to Wareham High School. Preschool students would also be moved to Wareham High School in a wing dedicated solely for them.
Disciplinary issues could be a concern by bringing fourth graders into the middle school, said Shannon Rose, a Wareham resident with a daughter in fourth grade.
“We have disciplinary issues with the kids as it is, and now we want to bring it into the middle school,” Rose said. “I will be looking into school choice for my daughter because I can’t do it anymore.”
School choice, a state program, allows students to attend schools in out-of-town districts. For each student that leaves, a district must pay $5,000 to the student’s new school.
Carla Troupe, the mother of two children at Wareham Middle School, said she has seen an “upheaval” of moving students around and closing schools in town since she moved to Wareham in 2007. She said when she arrived, there were five elementary schools and now the number is down to two.
“I think it’s been proven over the time that I’ve been in Wareham that it’s not working,” Troupe said. “It’s chasing more parents and their students out of Wareham...I beg the town administrator to come up with a different way to handle this deficit in the budget and not cut into the school’s budget.”
The total anticipated savings from closing Minot Forest Elementary is $1,150,000.
Since busing costs are increasing, the School Department is proposing charging a fee for transportation.
While the town pays for the purchase of new vehicles and their maintenance, the School Department's costs for transportation are skyrocketing due to an increase in driver salaries, increased costs of paying contract services for students who live out of district and a greater number of routes.
Students who wish to travel on school buses would have to pay, with a few exceptions. Free transportation would still be provided for students from kindergarten to sixth grade who live more than two miles from the school. The fee would be charged for those younger students who live within two miles of the school and to all students in grades 7 to 12. There would be a reduction in cost for students who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.
Charging for transportation would give the department a revenue stream and allow them to consolidate bus routes, reducing inefficiencies. This would save around $170,000, MacMillan said.
Changes to leadership positions in the district could help save money as well, MacMillan said. Currently, the School Department relies heavily on assistant principals who are supported by deans and department chairs.
The proposed solution is to remove assistant principals and add in deans and additional department chairs to provide support. Deans teach classes half-time and department chairs are also involved in teaching classes. These changes to leadership would save approximately $252,000.
Overall impact and additional questions
If all those changes are implemented, the budget would still be around $300,000 higher than the town’s budget for the School Department. MacMillan said the department will be working with town officials to create a budget proposal.
Why doesn’t the School Department have more money?
The town’s main revenue sources are property taxes and state funding. There is less funding from the state for education this year because of the growing popularity of school choice and charter schools for Wareham students. Wareham Public Schools pay around $3 million for students to attend charter schools or schools outside the district.
Additionally, MacMillan explained, employee benefits have continued to grow, putting a strain on the budget. Also, there are fewer grants coming into the district.
Why does the district need so much money to maintain services?
One reason Wareham Public Schools requires the proposed budget is because of contractually obliged salary increases, costing $1.4 million in 2019. Out-of-district tuition costs are also increasing while enrollment is declining, with 440 fewer students in Wareham Public Schools since 2014.
Despite these changes, the priority in making the budget is the students, MacMillan said. Amid the budget cuts, officials are looking at class sizes, improving discipline, supporting the needs of students and maintaining current programs when possible.