At a budget hearing last week Shrewsbury parents and educators offered the School Committee a chorus of concern about lost services, fewer teachers, and overcrowded classrooms, bemoaning a decline in the kind of educational services that — with lower taxes — have drawn families to the town.
One by one, the 20 parents and teachers who addressed the committee mourned those losses as 50 other hearing attendees looked on.
The speakers endorsed the committee’s proposed $54.3 million budget for fiscal year 2014, which starts July 1. The budget proposal exceeds the town’s recommended budget for the schools by more than $4 million and is 8.8 percent higher than this year.
“Teachers and students pay the price because we don’t want to pay more taxes,’’ said Michelle Duke, who said she has three children in the schools. “We need to talk to peers and fellow citizens, talk to friends and neighbors. We need to raise taxes.”
But School Committee members all but ruled out a tax increase.
Town Manager Daniel Morgado has recommended the schools get only a .71-percent increase over this year to cover some costs of state-mandated programs. In October, the Shrewsbury Board of Selectmen voted not to allow any tax increase override questions on the May 2013 Town Meeting Warrant.
Given the selectmen’s decision, the School Committee told the audience Wednesday that their proposal would likely never reach the voters. Instead, committee chairwoman Erin Canzano asked people in the audience to prioritize their concerns.
All of the speakers who addressed the board cited large class sizes and overcrowded classrooms as the biggest problem, especially for students in first and fourth grade.
Gary Alperson, who said he has two children in Shrewsbury schools, said that due to cutbacks in teachers that has increased class sizes, “in some classrooms, students share desks.” He and several other parents suggested that if the budget could not be increased to restore teaching positions, then “restore curricular support to not divert teachers.”
Alperson said restoring the cuts seen during the past 10 years is necessary to keep test scores high, another concern raised by several parents and teachers at the hearing. Other parents told the committee that the current high test scores were the result of teacher dedication, and that the scores will decline as teachers’ morale continues to fall.
Colleen Early, who teaches family and consumer science at the high school and who graduated from Shrewsbury High herself, told the committee: “I do see that my current students are not getting what I got just a few years ago.”
Parent Beth Bouley, who said she is an expert in education and works for Abt Associates, a Cambridge-based research and consulting firm, told the committee that class size needs to be the top priority.
“There are big, positive, and lasting effects from smaller class sizes,” Bouley said.
She also said that 92 percent of school districts in the state spend more on their students than Shrewsbury.
Parent Lorraine Daignault, who is also copresident of the Paton Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization, said that at Paton, “the fourth grade classrooms are built for 20 students and have 29 kids in the room.”
“You can’t get by the desks,’’ Paton said. “There are not enough computers and some of the ones they do have are not working. Teachers are asking kids to bring in iPads from home just so the class can do work.”
Selectman Jim Kane, who is also a parent of a school-age child, told the committee that the last four school budget override questions asking voters to increase taxes “went down in flames.” While he acknowledged that he too believes the classes are overcrowded, he said that the town is struggling to find revenue for new expenditures as it meets required budget increases that include pension hikes for more than 300 school employees.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to say we are going to fill that gap,’’ Kane said. “We need to find a path but there is no magic wand.”
The hearing Wednesday was the first chance the public had to comment on the School Committee’s proposal. The final school budget proposal is scheduled to be presented to the Shrewsbury Finance Committee on March 28. The Finance Committee’s public hearings on the department budget proposals for fiscal 2014 will be held April 18 and 25.