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Newton school budget passes with fewer programs, more fees

Posted by Sarah Thomas  April 7, 2011 10:16 AM

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The Newton School Committee passed a $171.6 million budget that makes significant cuts to art, music, and foreign language programs, reduces high school offerings, and raises fees for sports and afterschool activities.

The vote, which took place Wednesday night, culminates a monthlong debate process that saw parents and community members plead for restoring programs like middle school Latin and third grade recorder classes. It will go into effect for the 2011-2012 school year.

"People sometimes ask me if I like being on the School Committee, and up until tonight my answer was an unequivocal yes," said School Committee member Sue Rosenbaum, who was visibly moved during the vote. "But tonight is very difficult for me. My three children have benefitted from Newton's excellent school system, and no matter how we vote tonight the result will be a school system that isn't as excellent, but one where we're asking parents to pay more to it."

The budget passed 8-1, with Committee member Geoff Epstein opposed.

"I'm not voting against this budget because I think it was poorly done; on the contrary, I think it was extremely well done, and has achieved an establishment of exactly where we are in terms of being able to fund the schools," Epstein said. "But I have to hold the line on Latin in the middle schools. For me, it is one thing cut from the ecosystem that's too far."

The budget passed with no changes from the proposal presented in March by superintendent David Fleishman. It calls for 33.6 full-time teaching positions to be cut, with 9.8 of those positions removed from the high schools. The cuts will reduce the variety of electives traditionally available to Newton high school students, including one unit of Latin classes.

At the elementary level, 7.9 full-time equivalent positions will be lost, with grade 4 chorus and grade 3 recorder classes eliminated. Art classes will be reduced from 60 minutes to 45 minutes.

On the middle school level, drama classes for grades 7 and 8 will be eliminated, as will middle school Latin classes. Grade 6 drama will be retained.

Epstein said he believed the cuts to Latin were an exception in a budget that otherwise tried to avoid targeting programs in danger of extinction.

"The School Committee guidelines said to try to steer away from areas that will die if you cut them," Epstein said. "I feel strongly that, in this budget framework, the Latin program will die."

The budget will also add just under $1 million in revenue from new and increased fees. New fees include a $200 fee for instrumental music in grade 5, a $200 fee for students participating in All City music programs, and a $60 fee for middle school students wishing to participate in afterschool activities - $100 if that activity is drama. It will also add a high school drama fee of $150 per play with a $450 cap for the year, and a $125 high school afterschool activities fee.

Existing fees will also be raised under the proposed budget, including bus fees, along with fees for early morning drop-off programs, middle and high school athletics, school building use, and the Newton Early Childhood program.

School Committee member Kurt Kusiak said that raising fees was not enough of a revenue strategy for the future.

"Cuts to the budget are only going to get worse in future years if we don't find some new sources of revenue, and that's not the kind of school district people move to Newton for," Kusiak said. "We make our schools better, not worse, and to make them better we're going to have to find some new money."

The district is receiving $4.4 million from the city, and mayor Setti Warren said there is the possibility of more money if the state decided to pass Governor Deval Patrick's budget.

"We worked with school officials to make sure we dedicated the right resources to the budget, and we found as much money as we could for the school system," Warren said. "We engaged with the community and heard what residents said about their priorities, and we've had to make some difficult decisions. We now need to make it loud and clear to Beacon Hill that they need to protect the funding in the governor's proposed budget."

Warren said the state could vote on the budget as soon as next week. School officials said they could reverse some of the budget cuts as late as August if more money was provided by the state.

The meeting was sparsely attended by parents and school officials.

"I have a kid who would have been going into third grade recorder next year," said Newton mother Jenn Conley. "It is what it is. I think they did a great job of being creative, but unfortunately the money just isn't there."

For one teacher at the meeting, however, the cuts hit home more personally.

"I'm still in shock. I don't know what the future will bring," said Mark Coughlin, who has been a Latin teacher in both the district's middle and high schools for 30 years. "I'll continue to hope they look for more ways to get revenue and that maybe something will change."

Coughlin said he regretted not having enough opportunity for supporters of the Latin program to explain its benefits to Newton residents.

"It's not just important for elite students who want to get into Harvard," Coughlin said. "I think Latin is one of the most important general education classes a student can take. I think we should find a way to support it."

Sarah Thomas can be reached at

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