Budget cuts take toll on teaching staffs

By Julie Mehegan
Eagle Statehouse Bureau
and Jennifer Fenn

BOSTON -- School districts across Massachusetts have lost 2,160 teaching positions and have seen class sizes grow significantly because of budget cuts over the past two years, according to results of a survey released yesterday.

The survey was prepared by two teachers' unions, the Massa-chusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, along with the associations that represent school superintendents and school committees and the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

It examined staffing levels, class sizes and program reductions in public schools over the past two fiscal years.

The 187 school districts that responded to the survey -- representing two-thirds of the student population and teaching force in the state -- reported a net loss of nearly 1,400 teachers, mostly through attrition, according to the report. Based on that figure, the study's authors calculated the total loss of teaching positions statewide to be 2,160.

Among the communities highlighted in the report is Pittsfield, which has seen a reduction of 51.6 teachers, or 10.4 percent of the teaching staff, between fiscal 2002 and fiscal 2004, according to the survey results.

Pittsfield School Superintendent William Travis said the district has laid off a total of about 100 school personnel, including teachers, administrators and support workers, over the past three years.

Between last year and the current school year, class sizes have increased from an average of 19 to 21 students in prekindergarten through Grade 3 classrooms; from 22 to 23 students in Grades 4 and 5; from 22 to 23.2 students at the middle school level; and from 25 to 28 students in the city's two high schools, according to the report.

In addition, the district has combined some kindergarten and first-grade classes to support full-day programs, reduced bus service, instituted a $100 per student fee for high school student activities, and increased the bus fee for students in Grades 7 through 12.

"The state and the federal government continue to expect us to make annual progress, and without annual adequate funding I don't know how districts that have already had cuts like ours can continue to show marked improvement," Travis said.

Statewide, the survey results indicate that class size has grown in three of every five school districts. Fifty-nine percent of responding school districts reported that their average class size had gone up over the past two years, while 24 percent reported no change and 18 percent reported a reduction.

Many school districts have im-posed or increased sports and transportation fees and reduced or eliminated art, music, health, library and other programs because of budget cuts, according to the survey.

The authors of the report, entitled "Progress in Jeopardy," say the cuts have reversed many of the gains made by public schools in the 11 years since the landmark Education Reform Act of 1993 passed, increasing spending on schools to unprecedented levels.

With the exception of the MMA, the groups involved in releasing yesterday's report are backing a lawsuit brought against the state Department of Education that charges the state is not adequately funding education.

As Gov. Mitt Romney and legislative leaders begin negotiations over a budget for fiscal 2005, they hope the data in the report help to frame the debate over spending on public education.

"In the past three years we've had our hearts stomped on by the situation that we're in, and it shouldn't be that way," said Paul Schlichtman, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and a member of the School Committee in Arlington. "We've dropped the ball in the past three years. [Public education] has not been adequately funded."

State Sen. Robert A. Antonioni, D-Leominster, who chairs the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education, Arts and the Humanities, acknowledged that schools have felt the pain of budget cuts.

"But I think it is almost to be expected when you're seeing the magnitude of budget cuts that we have experienced at all levels of government," Antonioni said. "There has been a downturn in the economy, and that has significantly impacted available revenue."

Antonioni said he is optimistic that funding levels will improve with the recovering economy.

"I suspect that as the economy strengthens, you'll see more dollars going to education. As education chair, that's certainly my top priority, and I think that we will do all we can to see that vital education needs are met," he said.

Like Antonioni, a spokeswoman for the Romney administration said the fiscal crisis forced the state to cut spending in all areas of government, not just in education, and expressed optimism that the state is beginning to turn a corner.

"We certainly understand the concerns and recognize that any budget cuts have had an impact on schools. However, this report looks at a two-year period, which happens to be two of the most difficult financial years the state has had in a long time," said Heidi Perlman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Perlman noted that during the two-year period included in the survey, total spending on education, excluding state aid, increased 6.7 percent. Romney has proposed an additional $115 million in spending on education for the next fiscal year.