Unions say classroom crisis may be coming

by Kevin Rothstein
Thursday, February 19, 2004

State budget cuts have left Bay State classrooms with an estimated 3 percent fewer teachers this year and larger class sizes in the majority of districts, a survey released yesterday shows.

     The report, prepared by the state's two largest teachers' unions and other groups, was released as advocates prepare for the coming budget battle on Beacon Hill.

     ``We're very happy (the governor) has seen fit to increase the education budget but it doesn't come anywhere near restoring the half-billion in cuts that have taken place,'' said Catherine Boudreau, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

     An alliance of education activists behind the report say $527 million in cuts over the past two years to state aid for education and for cities and towns is leading Massachusetts to a classroom crisis.

     ``We tightened our belts in the good times because of Proposition 2 1/2, and in the bad times we make disastrous, bad, horrible, no good, very bad cuts,'' said Paul Schlichtman, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and an Arlington school board member.

     Based on surveys returned by school districts, the study's authors estimate 2,160 teaching positions have been eliminated statewide.

      Of 153 districts that gave class size data, 59 percent reported an increase.

     The problem seems especially evident in middle-class Braintree, which lost 50 teachers this year.

     Some fourth-grade classes have 30 kids. High school computer classes have been cut.

     Furthermore, cuts coming at a time of unprecedented state and federal standards is unfair, said Braintree Superintendent Peter Kurzberg.

     ``It's fair to say we have taken a giant step backwards in terms of our educational program,'' he said.

     Department of Education spokeswoman Heidi B. Perlman maintained spending on education has gone up in the state, but said, ``We share their concerns. We see their cuts have had an impact but we also see things are turning in the right direction.''

     Dolores Simonetti, mother of three kids in Winthrop's decimated school system, warned that other districts are next unless something is done.

      ``Other communities' downward spiral has begun. Winthrop is in full force now,'' she said.