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School districts brace for teacher layoffs

Posted June 3, 2010 05:36 PM

For students, June marks the beginning of the countdown to summer vacation. But for teachers and other school employees across northern Massachusetts, it is often the cruelest month.

With the economic turndown showing few signs of letting up, more than 100 educators are expected to receive pink slips from school districts in Beverly, Haverhill, Lowell, Lawrence, and Peabody in the coming weeks.

“We’ve run out of good options and we’re cutting right to the bone,’’ said Beverly Superintendent James Hayes Jr.

Hayes, like other area superintendents preparing layoff lists, said rising health insurance premiums, teacher salary raises, and special education costs have added millions annually to school budgets.

For years, Beverly has struggled to fund its schools. In recent years it closed a middle school, an elementary school, and since Hayes took over the district six years ago, he has been forced to cut dozens of teaching positions.

In order to make up for a $2.4 million shortfall, Beverly is cutting more than 31 full-time-equivalent positions, reducing hours for cafeteria workers and bus drivers to save on health insurance premiums, and cutting the salaries of the superintendent and assistant superintendent, its highest paid administrators.

In Peabody, Superintendent C. Milton Burnett said the district is looking at a second year of significant layoffs. Last year, the city cut 72 school positions, including 23 teachers and three special education counselors.

Burnett said teachers’ raises and insurance increases will account for more than $3 million of the district’s $3.3 million shortfall.

“It’s fair to say you’re looking at dozens of layoffs,’’ said Burnett, who expects the cuts will affect all employees, including teachers, teachers’ aides, custodians, and administrators.

Burnett already has decided to work without an assistant superintendent next year, and will save $105,000 by not replacing Joe Mastrocola, who is leaving to become the superintendent of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District.

In Haverhill, school officials have set a $54.7 million budget, but that’s $3.7 million less than what’s required to maintain teacher rosters. Assistant superintendent Kara Kosmes said up to 30 educators will be laid off, with 15 full-time teachers cut from the district’s art, music, and phys-ed departments.

Kosmes said Haverhill has cut $500,000 in out-of-district special education placements for the next year, a move that she acknowledged was risky — given that cities are required to fund all special-ed students. “We have been forced to take risks like this to keep instruction sacrosanct,’’ she said.

In Lowell, the school district has lost more than 500 positions — including more than 200 teachers — in the past six years, and is preparing to cut more than 63 full-time positions for next year, said Superintendent Chris Scott.

Scott helped set a $141 million budget for the coming year, the same amount the city spent this year. Still, she has to cut $4 million in order to make up for increased spending on health insurance, utilities, and employee pay raises.

In elementary and middle schools, more than 25 technology and media specialists, who help teach computers and run libraries, will be laid off. At the high school, 13 classroom teachers will be cut.

Scott lamented the need to make the cuts and said that with the lack of instructional technology, and library staff, the district was “undoing decades of good work.’’

In Lawrence, School Committee vice president Samuel Reyes said as many as 50 school employees could be laid off by the end of the month, in order to make up a $2 million shortfall. Reyes said the city is seeking concessions from school unions in order to prevent the layoffs.

While teachers have a contract that runs until August, Reyes said any new agreement would have to include savings for the city.

Reyes said concessions could include employees paying more for health insurance or taking furlough days.

By Steven Rosenberg, Globe Staff | June 3, 2010

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