|Last week, Superintendent of Schools John Doherty presented to the School Committee and the Community the FY17 Superintendent’s Recommended Budget. A complete copy of the budget is located here. On Monday evening, an overview of the budget was presented, as well as, the Administration and Regular Day cost centers. On Thursday evening, Director of Student Services Carolyn Wilson presented the Special Education Cost Center budget, and Director of Finance and Operations Martha Sybert presented the District Wide Services (Athletics, Extra-curricular, District Wide Technology, and Health Services) budget.
In addition to the School Committee meetings, two community budget presentations were held last week where parents and other community members had the opportunity to ask questions about the FY17 budget.
We will continue to inform Staff and Community about the FY17 Budget Process in this newsletter and the Pathways Blog. The upcoming budget meetings are as follows:
Reading School Committee Budget Meetings (All Meetings Begin at 7:00 p.m. at the Reading Public Schools Administration Offices)
· Thursday, January 21st-Public Hearing, Town and School Facilities
· Monday, January 25-Final School Committee Vote
There will also be a Financial Forum of the School Committee, Board of Selectmen, and Finance Committee on Wednesday, January 20th at 7:30 p.m. at the Reading Senior Center. The topic will be the FY17 budget and future budget discussions. This is a public meeting and all are encouraged to attend.
Further Thoughts and Challenges
The Community Forums that were held last spring and fall provided an opportunity to gather feedback on what was working in our school district and what needs to be improved. The data shows that, overall, the community and staff gave positive remarks about the Reading Public Schools. In the focus group sessions, the consistent strengths that emerged include the quality and dedication of our teaching staff and administrators, our students who come to school every day ready to learn, and the commitment that our parents make to our schools. Our data also showed that we have strong special education programs, significant opportunities for our students to participate in extra-curricular activities, athletic programs, and extended field trips, and the access that students have to technology in our district.
In addition, we are also beginning to see some positive downward trends in some of our key Youth Risk Behavior Data, which is based upon a survey that is administered to all Grade 6-12 students every two years. Since 2005, we have seen significant decreases in the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana. This is a testament to the collaboration and partnership with the Town of Reading, Reading Public Schools, the RCASA, and the Reading Police Department, both from a policy perspective and an implementation and enforcement perspective. In 2005, the use of alcohol by our high school students was at a much higher rate than today. Due to the work of the Board of Selectmen who passed a revised Town Liquor Policy in 2009, the Reading School Committee who passed a revised chemical health policy for students who participate in extra-curricular activities and athletics in 2011, and our Police Department, who began implementing compliance checks and a zero tolerance policy for our youth, we have seen a significant decrease in the use of alcohol by our high school students. This is a concrete example how a collaborative effort of policy changes and implementation can result in a positive benefit for our youth. Although we would like these percentages to be at 0%, the results are showing that our efforts are having an impact.
Although the data and the forums show we have a lot to be proud of in our schools, the information gathered also shows that there are areas we need to address so that we can maintain the level of excellence that we have taken pride in over the last several years. Addressing these areas will be critical to the long term success of our school district.
Our continuing challenge has been to address the achievement gap that exists with our High Needs group consisting of students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, and English Language Learner students. Although our recent MCAS and PARCC state assessment scores showed significant progress, Reading is still a level 3 district as designated by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. This designation is based upon state assessment scores and has been due to the fact that we have not been able to meet the needs of this group of students as compared with the general population. We are encouraged that the school improvement process that we have been embarking upon for the last two years will provide us with an opportunity to review every aspect of what we are doing at our schools and in our district to effectively address the needs of all our students. Several of the unfunded areas mentioned in last week’s newsletter, particularly the ones directly related to our district goal 1 of addressing student learning needs, will help close this achievement gap.
Another area of concern is the overall behavioral and emotional health of our students. As mentioned above, although we have seen some very positive results in the latest administration of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, we are seeing some troubling trends as well. We have seen slight increases since 2005 in the use of some of the more dangerous drugs, such as prescription medication, heroin, hallucinogens, and inhalants. Synthetic marijuana is emerging as a potent and risky alternative for students. In addition, 24% of our community’s 14-18 year olds stated that they have used electronic cigarettes with nicotine products, also called vaping, which is a dangerous upward trend.
In addition, over the last 10 years, we have seen increases in the percent of teens who have felt sad or hopeless for more than 2 weeks in a row, are involved in non-suicidal self-injury, or have engaged in suicidality. During the 2014-15 school year, 55 RMHS students were hospitalized for anxiety, suicidal tendencies, and/or depression. We have seen increases in this area at our elementary and middle schools as well. Our high school students have indicated on the 2015 YRBS that the major stressors in their life are increased workload, expectations about school and lack of sleep. Although these increases are not isolated just to Reading, we are concerned that the numbers of incidents in Reading is higher than the state average. As a community, we have taken significant steps to address these increased concerns through our partnerships with the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse and the Community’s support in previous budgets with programs and staffing that supports behavioral health. In addition, as reported last year, the Town and the School Department received three Federal grants, totaling 1.95 million dollars, to continue to help address the overall behavioral health of our youth. The first grant continues the great work that RCASA has done over the last several years. The second grant will allow the Reading Public Schools to train a minimum of 584 school educators, school support staff, first responders, youth workers, and faith leaders in Youth Mental Health First Aid to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders in our youth. So far, over 300 people have been trained in this area. The third grant will implement a highly sustainable, multi-tiered system of supports to improve school climate and behavioral outcomes for all students. We have made tremendous progress in this area in just one year. These three grants ensure that we will be able to move forward in creating structures, systems, and processes throughout our community to reach and engage all of our youth, particularly those youth who may be vulnerable to risky behaviors such as substance abuse or creating harm to themselves or others. These initiatives, combined with the work that we have done over the last several years in school safety with the Reading Police and Fire Departments, places our community as a leader in proactively addressing the overall safety of our children. As we all know, if students do not feel physically and psychologically safe in school, they will not learn, no matter what curriculum, technology, or teacher you put in front of them. I would like to thank the Reading Police and Fire Departments and the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse, under the leadership of Chief James Cormier, Chief Greg Burns, and RCASA Executive Director Erica McNamara, for the partnership that they have forged with the Reading Public Schools over the last several years and their leadership and efforts in creating safe and supportive environments for our children.
The final area of concern and challenge for our school district is related to school funding. We are very appreciative and value the financial support that our community has given to public education over the last several years. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, our latest state financial data shows that Reading ranks 305th out of 326 Massachusetts communities in per pupil spending, 118th out of the 125 communities in the Boston Metro Area and this ranking has been in steady decline since 2006. It is well documented that our community has a revenue challenge as we become more and more reliant on cash reserves each year to fund our budgets. It is to our town’s credit that through mutual respect and collaboration, town boards have stretched our dollars to provide the quality education and services, of which Reading is so proud.
While of course a particular “per pupil expenditure” is not the point, nor a guarantee of educational excellence (for instance, there are many school districts where higher spending does not necessarily translate to greater student achievement), it’s important to make clear that the objective is not the specific dollar amount—but rather a sustainability from year to year that is comparable to other communities in the state. For many years, Reading’s per pupil expenditure was in the average to low average range for the state, and we were proud that we were still able to attain above average results. The significance in the state “per pupil” ranking is not any specific dollar amount but rather the yearly comparison to all the other communities in the state. As the drastic decline in the state ranking indicates however—dropping in the last decade from 232 to 305 (out of 326 communities), Reading has unfortunately not kept pace in sustainability with other communities in the commonwealth. In order to continue providing our students with the most effective programs and also to continue attracting/retaining excellent educators, this is clearly an issue that needs further attention as we move forward.
Our continuing decline in per pupil expenditure is beginning to have an impact on our school system, especially during the times of transition that our schools are currently facing. Over the last five years, the average budget increase has been 2.64%, however, expenses in health care costs, utilities, supplies, special education costs and compensation have come in at much higher increases. This leads to overall decreased funding for school services and programs. We are in the midst of tremendous educational change in our state and in our country with more rigorous curriculum frameworks, a next generation assessment system, and the expectation to make sure all students are college and career ready. We also need to address the areas mentioned earlier in behavioral health. During these times of transition, it is more important than ever to sustain our previous levels of support and to add resources to address additional needs. In the upcoming school years we will need to begin to update our science and engineering curriculum, provide time and resources for teachers to implement these new curricula, continue to improve our special education services and programs, add more tutorial and social emotional support for struggling students, offer dedicated health education classes at our elementary and middle schools, increase our Advanced Placement course offerings at the high school and elective offerings at all levels, and update the High School Graduation requirements to help prepare our students for college and future opportunities. The resources necessary to move forward in these areas are listed in Figure 3 above and are not in the FY17 Recommended budget.
Equally important, we need to continue to attract and retain the best educators. This past school year alone five educators left our district and took employment in another school district in the Metro Boston area for higher compensation, better benefits and improved working conditions related to caseload and paperwork. In addition, four candidates who were offered positions in our school district declined to accept our offer and accepted a position in another school district for higher compensation and benefits.
While the FY17 Superintendent’s Recommended budget allows us to address many of the priorities which reflect the community’s desire to continue a long-standing tradition of excellence in our schools, financial constraints limit our ability to pursue many of the innovative programs, structures, and systems that we believe will make our students even more successful. The Reading Public Schools is at a crossroads when it comes to the amount of funding available and what were are able to do to continue to improve education in our district. While each district’s per pupil spending might be impacted by varying needs, what is evident has been our inability to sustain what had been effective levels of services from year to year. What we are finding is that, in the last several years, we are losing ground, and finding it harder to compete with comparable communities. In FY15, the School Department needed to reduce a level service budget by $285,000. Last year, the FY16 Superintendent’s Recommended base budget was reduced by $849,620 from a level service budget, and this year, the FY17 Recommended budget has been reduced from the level service budget by $658,193. Although we do not support making any reductions, the Superintendent’s Recommended FY17 base budget is designed so that the reductions proposed minimize the overall impact on student learning, while helping us move forward in key areas to begin implementation of the science curriculum frameworks, continue to provide support for our teachers in math and literacy, and provide funding in our special education program for some of our most fragile students.
In addition, what this budget is not able to provide is funding for long term improvements that are needed in our school district at every level. Several of these areas (see figure 3), are important initiatives that we need to provide for our students, and include funding full day kindergarten for all students, restructuring our elementary schools to eliminate the early release Wednesday and to provide more opportunities in computer science, science, the arts and engineering, restructuring our high school schedule and programming, improving our special education programs and services, and increasing health education across the district. However, these initiatives are not sustainable with the current revenue available. Without additional revenue, our ability to improve and provide the best educational opportunities for our students will decline. As we have seen in this budget, there are fewer and fewer non-personnel reductions that can be made to offset the budget constraints. Moreover, this budget continues to be very dependent on increases on offsets which are not sustainable long term. If the FY18 budget has similar limitations in available revenue, we will need to make even more reductions in staffing, which will result in eliminations of programs, courses and services and further increases in class size.
In conclusion, our district will continue to stay focused on the academic, social, emotional, and behavioral well-being of our students. While we are proud of the fact that we are a district that is on the forefront in many areas, we have many challenges that lie ahead, including educational space needs, funding for full day kindergarten, making the transition to a more rigorous curriculum and improving the social and emotional well-being of our students. The increasing accountability demands on public education and the needs of our students have increased significantly over the last five years and we need to identify additional resources and restructure some existing resources so that our teachers and administrators can continue to do the hard work necessary to improve student learning. We need resources to create more opportunities for teachers to collaboratively work together to share their work, and improve their practices, and to provide instructional coaching support so that teachers can see firsthand what it looks like in the classroom. The Superintendent’s Recommended FY17 budget reflects those priorities.
Although this is an uncertain budgetary time in our schools, we have an opportunity to make positive substantive changes. It is difficult work, but we are up to the challenge of providing the best learning experiences for our students. We are proud of the work that our teachers and administrators do every day to improve teaching and learning in our district. In addition, we have enthusiastic and respectful students who arrive to school every day eager to learn. This is a testament to our parents and our community who value the importance of education and the role that it needs to play in a community. There is no question that a major indicator of the quality of life for everyone in a community can be measured by the quality of its schools and by a community’s commitment to its children. In this way, the quality of a school district affects every single person in a community, and the Town of Reading is no exception.
We appreciate the support that we have received from the community in the past and we look forward to working with town officials during this budget process and in providing sustainable funding solutions for FY18 and beyond.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact the Reading Public Schools administration offices at 781-944-5800.