Supt. Priya Tahiliani and Asst. Supt. Charlie Obremski told the Everett School Committee on Monday night they are bracing for at least a 5 percent reduction in their budget – which would equal a $5.8 million cut – and potentially as much as 10 to 15 percent.
“We know funding is tough, but I also know that 5 percent cuts are the best of what we’ll look at if we’re being realistic,” she said.
Added Obremski, “The numbers are staggering when you look at it – the millions we would have to cut. Some 75 percent of our budget is salaries, so our cuts would be to people. If we get a 5 percent reduction, there would be staff reductions…Right now our plan is 5 percent. If it went higher, we would have to propose some more budget cuts to the School Committee.”
Right now, funding for schools is totally in flux and no one knows at all what to expect, and the next budget cycle starts July 1. Both Tahiliani and Obremski said they were told to begin preparing for cuts, with the knowledge things might not be so bad, but also to operate under the impression that it could be a 5-10 percent reduction in the budget. A 10 percent reduction would represent an $11.7 million cut, and a 15 percent reduction would mean a $17.6 million cut. Both the 10 percent and 15 percent plans would require a community conversation, said Tahiliani, because it would mean cutting out core services and amenities for students. The community, she said, would play a major role in deciding what essential services to keep, and what to cut, sadly.
It was supposed to be a year when the district – and many urban districts like Everett – would be rolling in the fruits of the Student Opportunity Act (SOA) funding and making choices to restore long-eliminated services while also closing achievement gaps in vulnerable populations. That all took a detour when COVID-19 came on the scene, devastating businesses and decimating revenues coming into the state and the City – which in turn leads to less funding for the schools.
So it is a budget that was to increase by 7.2 percent over last year will now be at least a 5 percent cut from last year – and could be as high as 15 percent – with no SOA funding on the way from Beacon Hill until at least the next budget cycle.
Tahiliani said they would be laying off at least 92 positions from the School Department, but she said unlike in the previous administration, those cuts would not come from the teaching and learning staff.
“Reductions in staff – that is difficult for everyone involved,” she said. “In our methodology in approaching this, we learned from mistakes made elsewhere. We talked about student-facing positions and how we needed to preserve them. Many times they have laid off first-year teachers. This is a year we are not doing that. We are keeping them because we need them and we may well need more teachers…Teachings students is not an area where we can cut corners. We will need everyone’s supporting small group learning…They will be important…This decision was not about people, but about positions.”
She said letters have gone out last Friday about the cuts, and they will take full effect by the end of the month. However, she said they have leveraged their grant-funding capacity – and looked to find other dollars as well – and expect there to be other positions available.
She said they will institute a 1/12th budget for the first four months of the coming fiscal year, meaning they will take it month by month and fund the schools with level funding from this year. By October at least, they would have to revisit the budget process and make decisions based on more complete information that is expected to be available by then.
One of the major changes they have made, she said, is reorganizing positions and making more efficiencies in the administration of the schools. That will mean less staff shouldering more responsibilities. Those left will have more depth in their work and more work in general to do.
“Some positions will be re-designed,” said Tahiliani.
School Committeeman Marcony Almeida Barros said he was troubled by having to make cuts, but he said he appreciated how it was done differently this time than it has been done in the past.
“One thing that’s important for me is you’re not making cuts based on the way the district has historically made cuts – which was based on personality,” he said. “It’s not, ‘I don’t like you, so you’re out.’ You have really decided based on the needs and the crisis. It’s important to focus on the needs of students and not on that I know you and I know your friends and your mom – or that you were born in Everett or not.”
Said School Committeeman Frank Parker, “The economic impacts on public education brought on by COVID-19 will be the most impactful since Proposition 2 ½ many years ago. We are talking about losing a generation of teacher-leaders in public education service. We need to be prepared for that.”
The Committee voted 8-0 to proceed with the plan.
•Race, Equity and Bias Plan Launched
Supt. Tahiliani also launched a plan for the district to respond to structural racism, bias and a lack of equity that exists in the district – as it does in most around the state.
Tahiliani produced a plan that addresses nearly 10 points of improvement that would be tackled in a three-phase process – with each phase being about the physical location of staff, whether virtual, hybrid in-person or back to in-person schooling.
“We believe that it is very important even though we are still virtual that we address racial equality and bias which is in our district,” she said. “The importance of this cannot be overstated…I believe our educators are ready for it. Our staff is asking for it and our students are ready to lead it.”
Some of the points of improvement include closing opportunity and achievement gaps, improving communication from school leaders to the community and looking at the hiring practices and diversity of the school workforce – among several other points.
She said it will be a long-term process that will roll out in three phases.
“It won’t be a one-off professional development training,” she said. “It has to be a long-term, sustained rollout that will go on for a long time.”
Phase 1 will be a self-assessment of the district while things are in virtual/remote mode. It will focus on the Central office, and address the bias that everyone carries into their jobs – creating an awareness of it and identifying how it affects one’s job performance. These will be difficult conversations, she said, but will be a starting point immediately while the district is working remotely.
Phase 2 will take place when the schools have returned to a blended learning environment – where things are done remotely and in person.
The final phase will occur when students and teachers and staff are back in the classroom. This part will address systemic issues in the district, and will feature the tough, face-to-face conversations that are necessary, she said. Things that have been learned in the first two phases will be implemented into the classroom. That will also include revising curriculum to address the exclusion of the contributions from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
Tahiliani said the work will likely feature a leadership role for students – who are overwhelmingly representative of minority groups, while the staff and workforce is predominately white.
“Our students are ready to do this and have expressed a desire to do so,” she said.
The plan was approved by the Committee 8-0 and starts immediately.
School Committeeman Barros and Parker introduced a motion that would create a special Sub-Committee of members to work directly with the administration on this plan.
School Committeewoman Millie Cardillo said not only did she want to address the issues that exist now, but also she wanted a rigorous curriculum and reading program for younger students to understand race and bias – teaching them early to prevent it in the future.
“Through education we can move our society forward now, but we need to also start with our youngest children so they don’t grow up with it,” she said.
•RE-OPENING OF SCHOOLS
Just like the budget, re-opening schools in the fall is a major question mark for the district right now. Tahiliani said the state did come out with some guidelines that included very strict regulations of only 10 students per teacher, not eating at the cafeteria and maintaining distances from students and staff. That, however, was for summer school efforts. Right now, it is uncertain if there will be traditional school in the school buildings come August and September.
“We are going to begin the summer with remote learning and then re-assess as we make progress through the summer,” she said.
They have established a re-opening committee made up of school and community leaders, she said. They will begin meeting this week.
“We don’t have all the information, but we have enough to start planning and ordering Personal Protective Equipment (PPE),” she said.