Reductions hurt across state, say union and administrators

By Megan Tench, Globe Staff, 2/19/2004

About 1,400 teachers have lost their jobs, class sizes have grown so large that they're hard to control, and some students are paying high fees for sports, activities, and transportation.

Those are the effects of the state's $527 million cut to local aid during the past two years, and a portion of that cut affected education, according to a state teachers union report released yesterday. The cuts are chipping away at the progress the state's schools have made since the Education Reform Act of 1993, the report contends.

The authors of the report said they did not have a figure for education cuts during the past two years.

News reports have indicated that the state cut basic education aid last year by $150 million for local school districts and also reduced MCAS preparation funds from $50 million to $10 million. This year, Governor Mitt Romney is proposing $72 million in basic education aid, a 2.3 percent increase, and an additional $40 million to create various new programs for school districts.

The statewide look at the cuts was compiled by several teacher and administrative groups, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Many school leaders today say they are barely coping with last year's budget crisis and are girding for next year's cuts. Some question whether it's possible to give their students a basic education. "We are not able to provide the same quality of education to our students," said Superintendent Peter A. Kurzberg of Braintree. "We have taken a giant step backwards." Facing a $2 million budget shortfall this year, Kurzberg was forced to lay off 56 teachers, charge student activity and transportation fees, and reduce spending on textbooks. With dwindling resources, he said, it is unrealistic to expect students to meet the higher standards outlined under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

State education officials yesterday argued that that the report focuses on too short a time span. While local aid has been reduced over the two-year period, overall education spending has increased by 6.7 percent, the officials said. The spending increase, however, comes from a variety of sources, including municipal reserve funds and overrides of Proposition 2 1/2 tax limits.

"We certainly share their concerns and recognize that any budget cut hits a school district very hard," said Heidi B. Perlman, spokeswoman for the Department of Education. "It is somewhat unfortunate that the couple of years they chose to analyze were the two most difficult financial years the state has faced in a very long time. Every agency faced a hit, the economy really tanked, and everyone felt the crunch." Still, those on the front lines say, the reductions undercut their mission.At the Gill-Montague Regional School District, 19 teachers were let go, and the district was forced to combine grades in the elementary schools. For example, first and second grade is held in one classroom with one teacher, and the same goes for third and fourth grades. Some students now spend free periods running errands for teachers. The report was released a month before the Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule on whether the state is adequately funding K-12 education, even after 10 years of increased education spending.

Researchers surveyed school superintendents statewide about the impact of the budget cuts in their districts. There were responses from 187 superintendents, a little more than half of the state's school districts.

The school districts that responded reported eliminating 1,400 teaching jobs during the past two years.

In addition, 153 districts reported average class size data. Of those, 59 percent said class sizes have increased, 18 percent said classes have decreased, and 24 percent said the sizes have remained the same. Many school districts, including Boston, Springfield, and Haverhill, also reported closing schools, cutting programs such as tutoring for the MCAS exam, and raising fees.

In Arlington, the full-day kindergarten charge rose from $500 last school year to $1,500 this year.

"Our children deserve better," said Paul Schlichtman, who heads the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and serves on the Arlington board. But Perlman said there are signs of a turnaround. The governor has proposed no education cuts in his state budget package, keeping funding level. "At a time when the state is still facing a difficult economy, level funding is not bad," Perlman said. "The governor made difficult decisions crafting his budget, but he has made clear education is a priority."

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.


Deep cut in school systems taking a toll on educators

For Winthrop leader, it stopped adding up

By Suzanne Sataline, Globe Correspondent, 2/19/2004

WINTHROP -- On good nights, the superintendent fretted. On the bad nights, sleep vanished. Hours before dawn, thoughts of dollars and cents reeled in his head. Thomas Giancristiano would lie in bed in his Peabody home, eyes open and red, and make deals with the school finance devil.

How many custodians do we need? the Winthrop superintendent would ask. How many secretaries? If we keep the libraries closed, can we keep one more kindergarten teacher?

Winthrop's education leader had hoped that voters would pass a $6 million budget override, close an estimated $850,000 school deficit, and preserve the frame of a school system that long ago was whittled to bones. But on Feb. 9, the override lost. Four days later, Giancristiano, 55, announced at a School Committee meeting that he will leave in December.

It was a hard moment to watch: A confident, likable, optimist with 30 years of education experience was faced with cutting 17 teaching jobs. He chose instead to cut himself.

Giancristiano's voice was steady, his pique never showing. Only his reddening eyes displayed his anger.

"Either you do not support me, or you do not support your children," he read from his notes. "I would never stay anywhere under those conditions."

In the audience, Eileen Hegarty, a Winthrop parent who worked for the override vote, saw a man's insides torn up.

"He felt because he wasn't able to be part of the resolution, he felt he must be part of the problem," Hegarty said. "To see such a dignified, respected man reduced to tears was absolutely heartwrenching."

Those who know Giancristiano say they were not surprised by his choice, because it is emblematic of the state of school leadership. The state has 25 superintendent vacancies, a number expected to balloon to 50 next year, said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. The exodus is fueled by attractive retirement offers, as well as the stress of trying to fulfill more government mandates with less state money, he said.

"Superintendents are talking about getting out and they're counting the months," Koocher said.

Giancristiano arrived in Winthrop eight years ago, a 20-year veteran of Boston's public schools. When he was principal at Winthrop Middle School, Giancristiano shrugged it off when the administration cut his assistant's job. The cuts continued as he rose to superintendent four years ago.

A big part of Winthrop's aversion to spending money is rooted in the town's history. It is a bedroom community that, for years, received millions of dollars from the state during the massive and inconvenient construction of a waste water treatment plant. During that time, town administrators spent the minimum per-student amount set by the state, said Lester Towlson, the school finance director. Now that the state aid is gone, taxpayers are balking at the large increases necessary to run the system. If the override had passed, the average tax bill in Winthrop would have increased by an estimated $1,152 per year.

Giancristiano responded by slashing programs and personnel. He has eliminated librarians, foreign language teachers, teachers in grades kindergarten through four, a program for the gifted, music theory, home economics, remedial reading, business education, programs for at-risk youths, curriculum coordinators, secretaries, nurses, and crossing guards. In all, he cut 22.5 positions last school year.

The libraries are shuttered at each of the town's four schools. Step into the school district headquarters, and you can walk down a corridor without seeing a soul.

"Tell me a place in the private sector that has that kind of operating budget [of $14 million] that's run by two people and a secretary," said a frustrated Peter Finn, Winthrop's former school superintendent. Giancristiano "became a lightning rod for people who are frustrated."

The ire continues in town, now that Giancristiano and the School Committee say the next thing to go is sports. Residents are objecting, but Giancristiano says he has no choice.

"On one hand, they're absolutely invaluable," he said in an interview this week. "On the other hand, to keep that, do you keep the teachers, cut the sports, and hope the community will rally to fund-raise for sports?"

In recent years, friends and colleagues have watched the job take its toll on the superintendent. Giancristiano looked wan and haggard.

He acknowledges he hasn't slept well in a long time. "He doesn't smile as much as he used to," said his wife of 11 years, Mary Watson.

Neither he nor his wife, Northeastern University's dean of the School of Health Professions, say they know what he'll do next. For now, it's reading literature.

The outgoing superintendent says he will not return to education, although he laughs and says he's too old to never say never.

"My intent at this point is to leave education," Giancristiano said. "At some point, you have to say, `How much of this can I take?' "
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.