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Brockton

112 teacher layoffs approved

Cuts smaller than earlier number of pink slips issued

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / June 6, 2010

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In an unprecedented effort to cut costs, the Brockton School Committee has slashed nearly $10 million from the district’s 2011 school budget, axing programs and positions including more than 100 teachers, two dozen custodians, nine librarians, and another almost 100 classroom assistants and paraprofessionals.

The result is a balanced $142 million spending plan for the nearly 15,700-student district that will pack as many as 40 students into a classroom in the district’s 22 schools come September.

The number of teachers slated to lose their jobs, at 112, is far lower in the final budget than it was last month, when administrators sent out 430 pink slips indicating layoffs.

Still, local officials said the cuts, green-lighted by the School Committee Tuesday, come as a sad irony after recent state pronouncements that Brockton is the best-performing urban district on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests for English and math.

“We cut technology, we cut administration to the bare bones, and all the building principals have taken a pay freeze,’’ said School Committee member Richard Bath, who represents Ward 2. Even the middle school sports program had to be shifted to the oversight of the district’s community school, to save $180,000, he said.

“There is no more money,’’ Bath said. “We looked at every line item. At this point, we’re ready to go out and scratch lottery tickets.’’

Last month, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan used Brockton’s plight as an example of why a $23 billion lifeline for schools should be passed by Congress, estimating that as many as 300,000 teachers nationwide could be laid off next year. The jobs bill could rescue, or create, as many as 4,300 teaching jobs around the state, and 256,000 nationwide, he said.

Brockton habitually issues pink slips to teachers at the end of the school year and then brings many of them back, officials said. But this year is different.

Bath and other school representatives backed the sweeping cuts proposed by School Superintendent Matthew Malone and his department heads to also avoid closing the Raymond School, a K-7 school on the city’s north side that as recently as last week was still on the chopping block.

A shift of more than $3 million from reserve accounts, offered by Mayor Linda Balzotti, has kept the neighborhood school afloat, officials said. The mayor’s move was characterized by Bath as “a stroke of genius’’ in hard times when every dollar must be scrutinized, and justified, in order to fill a need.

But as a result of the cuts, Brockton High School registration is expected to jump as high as 40 students per class; middle school classes will increase from 28 students to 35 students; and elementary classrooms will generally add six students to a class, to about 31 children, according to school statistics.

Nothing about the cuts was easy, officials said. Earlier this spring, according to finance director Aldo Petronio, an original deficit of $13 million was reduced to $9.7 million. From there, salaries, which make up much of the budget, were reduced before jobs were targeted and 430 teachers received pink slips.

But after finding savings and making other cuts, that number last week was reduced to 112 teachers.

“The School Committee and the superintendent looked at every job that was shown them,’’ Petronio said, as a way of assessing its relationship to the work of teaching children. “They began with cutting custodians and had to consider how deep a cut they could make and still be able to operate,’’ he said.

Earlier this year, Malone presented the school community with an idea to flip the district’s budgeting process and begin each year at zero, so funding in a particular department or area is only included if the item can be justified.

Both Petronio and assistant superintendent John Jerome said the concept is under discussion.

“We are working on seeing if that is feasible by looking at each school as a cost center,’’ Petronio said.

But Jerome said it isn’t a matter of living beyond your means, when you never know what those means are: “We are always working backward because of state aid and never knowing what we will get.’’

For example, state Chapter 70 funding for students last year amounted to $11,000 per child, according to Bath. This year, after inflation was calculated, the district received $10,600 per child, and on top of that had an unexpected influx of 142 students from Haiti.

“We don’t have any money for them,’’ Bath said.

At a heated public hearing last week, hundreds of parents and school employees begged the School Committee not to make the personnel cuts that the Brockton Education Association, which represents 1,300 employees, described as “playing bookkeeping games.’’

Bath said he and other committee members were perplexed by the accusation. He said they have asked union members for their help. One request is for employees to delay accepting contractual raises for four to five months until the district’s financial position is more secure.

“For every union that did that, it would put money back to them for callbacks,’’ he said.

A call to the Brockton Education Association for comment was not returned.

The School Department said the exact number of layoffs will be finalized on June 19, a day after schools let out for the summer.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.

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