Tension was palpable and tempers were short at a joint meeting of members of Watertown's Town Council and School Committee called Wednesday night to discuss the fiscal crisis gripping the school system that could mean teacher layoffs and increased class sizes.
The meeting highlighted the difficulties and pressures facing the town and school system as state and federal funding sources dry up and costs—driven mostly by labor—continue rising at higher rates than local tax revenues.
Angry parents watched as Town Councilors criticized the schools' rising costs when other Watertown departments have been making cuts for the past few years. School Committee members defended their budget process and pledged to retain teachers and keep programs to the fullest extent possible.
Still, under one likely scenario, the School Department will be tasked with closing a $1.7 million budget gap, and making significant cuts to teaching staff.
School Committee chairman Tony Paolillo said that after years of trimming costs in other areas, teacher cuts remain one of the only areas available to wring out savings, especially when special education and union pay increases are legally mandated.
“The School Committee has been committed to not eliminating programs because once you eliminate them, its very difficult to bring them back. We're listening to the principals and how they run their buildings, what they can do and do without,” said Paolillo.
“You can absolutely take off the table the Cunniff school piece,” he said, referring to the possibility raised two weeks ago that Cunniff Elementary School could close.
At that point, Town Manager Mike Driscoll laid into the School Committee,saying they blundered public relations by floating the suggestion before the option was thoroughly researched.
“I'm ready to blow over this whole thing,” said Driscoll. “For two weeks, this community has heard that the Cunniff school was going to close...To make a statement that we may have to close a school, and the anguish that's gone on for two weeks, someone owes an apology.”
But School Committee members said they were asked by Driscoll to come up with various funding scenarios—including a 0 percent increase—and pointed to the fact that they still don't know how much money they'll be getting from the town. The School Department got about 88 percent of its $37.8 million budget this year from the town.
“The reason we have scenarios is because we're waiting for the number from the town,” said Paiollo.
Driscoll, who formulates Watertown's budget, blamed the state. He said at this time last year, the state had already let towns and cities know how much they'd be giving out in state funding. That amount plays a central role in shaping budgets and hasn't yet been released, leaving local officials to estimate numbers or wait.
The School Committee is targeting a budget that is 2 percent higher than last year. Under this scenario, up to 14 teachers would be laid off, causing class sizes to increase and many activities and electives across grades to disappear or shrink. The superintendent has said the schools need a 6 percent increase to remain status quo.
Parents have started organizing and attending meetings to take the administration and elected officials to task for not advocating for more money. They've set up a Facebook group to exchange information, including their opinions and ideas about the school and town budgets.
The Town Council's budget committee members were at Wednesday's meeting, and they were blunt in their advice to the School Committee.
“We need to do more and we need to be more clever in how we do this,” said the budget committee's chair, Vincent Piccirilli. He suggested the School Committee not sign any contract with pay raises for teachers, since the combination of rising special ed costs—which are mandated by federal law—plus salaries is outpacing revenue growth.
“Otherwise, every single year, we're going to be here and we'll be faced with laying off people to pay the people who are left,” he said.
He also suggested the School Committee bargain with the teachers' union to reduce annual increase for longevity, and cut administrative costs.
The School Committee meets Monday to discuss the budget and vote on the teachers' union contract that took months of negotiation.
School officials in early March delayed taking a vote on the contract, citing the need to have leeway during the fiscal crisis. The contract, if approved, will give teachers a 1.5 percent raise next year and a 2.5 percent raise the following year.
The budget will be done the week of April 11, said Paolillo. The schools then submit the budget to the town, and the town can either approve or reject the school's overall request.
Meanwhile, parents are clamoring for answers as they're left to wait and worry about what their kids' classrooms will look like next year. The Facebook group had grown to 80 members on Wednesday.
“Parents are just sick of this. They're sick of the way that it's been handled, and the idea that we can’t do anything about it,” said Allison McCrary, who has two young kids and has been rallying other parents.”
Paolillo said he's not happy about the situation either. He said in an interview that he couldn't sleep after Wednesday's meeting, and is bothered by the choices he and his fellow committee members face.
“This is not fun,” he said. “It turns your stomach.”
Megan McKee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.