At the January 4 School Committee Meeting, there was a FY23 budget consultation with the town manager, FY23 budget discussion of Student Interventions in Literacy and Math, and an Update on Health & Safety.
FY23 Budget Consultation with Town Manager
Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick and Assistant Town Manager/Director of Finance David Davidson discussed the upcoming FY23 town budget focusing in particular on items related to the schools. The town is in a better place now than it was a year ago as it is easier to predict the future given the current COVID-19 situation. There is cautious optimism in looking at the FY23 budget. We should take a moment to reflect on the fact that we have 10+ years of a balanced budget in Needham.
Some of the summer 2021 Select Board goals related to schools are reflected in the budget, including:
Maintain and invest in buildings (HVAC, staffing maintenance and construction jobs)
Maintain outdoor facilities and parks
American Rescue Plan funds play a role in the budget, received through the state from the federal plan, as well as money from Norfolk County. This money is required to be used by end of calendar year ’24 for specific items, which will include:
Funding COVID-19 relief such as public health contact tracing, behavioral and mental health, and nursing
Economic development relief grant funding
Technology and water/sewer programs
Mr. Davidson discussed some of the economic ramifications of COVID-19 during the past year, mentioning that the commercial sector was hurt due to COVID. The decrease in the values of commercial properties doesn’t cost the town revenues, but the taxes they would have paid will be shifted to residential homeowners. The decrease in revenues was largely mitigated by budget adjustments made prior to the start of the fiscal year in anticipation of these reductions.
Aaron Pressman asked about HVAC challenges at Sunita Williams due to the increased complexity of the new HVAC systems and whether those would be taken into account when looking at Emery Grover construction. Ms. Fitzpatrick agreed that there would need to be lots of conversation prior to construction and that the town is working on a proposal to hire someone specifically to work on HVAC. She also mentioned that the town is committed to continued investment in HVAC but that it is difficult to hire HVAC workers at the moment.
School Committee members asked questions about the Muzi sale in relation to tax revenue, which is too early to predict, and about increased revenue support for youth mental health initiatives. Dr. Barr reminded everyone that the town and School Committee will be as fiscally conscious as possible while providing the best education we can for our students.
Comments were made by town residents questioning why NPS is not doing pooled COVID-19 testing of students and staff, as well as why there were changes to the questions on the Ruvna health attestation form.
School Committee Chair and Subcommittee Updates
SC budget liaisons met with their Finance Committee liaisons recently. They are coordinating resources for youth and mental health with both school and town funding.
FY23 Budget Discussion: Student Interventions – Literacy and Math
This is one of many budget discussions that will be taking place. The focus today is on literacy and math student intervention budget requests for FY23, including increases in staff positions at a number of elementary schools, expanding the Early Bird literacy screening program, funding the Summer Bridge program, and increasing a K-5 math coordinator position.
Terry Dugan, assistant superintendent for student learning, Lisa Messina, literacy curriculum coordinator, and Kathleen Hubbard, math curriculum coordinator presented their budget requests based on the current and projected status of the district’s literacy and math needs. By taking a proactive approach to identifying students with academic or behavioral needs, the district is able to use early assessment and intervention to prevent learning loss.
Ms. Messina gave an overview of the literacy curriculum, mentioning that a great deal of groundwork was done from 2013-2020 to reach the current goal of ensuring that ALL students reach high levels of literacy and become proficient readers, writers, and communicators within a comprehensive literacy framework that aligns the curriculum and instruction with neuroscience. Importantly, a new emphasis has been placed on universal screening and identification of students at risk for dyslexia and other reading struggles. In order to maximize instruction, the district has begun using the Early Bird screener program in kindergarten with plans to expand into grade 1 and eventually grade 2. The goal of aligning curriculum and instruction with culturally proficient, anti-racist practices is met through units of study through the lens of equity, interdisciplinary work between the literacy and social students leadership teams, and inclusive classroom libraries.
Specific literacy budget requests include funding for:
Expanding Early Bird screener program to Grade 1.
FTE positions in Intervention/Coaching at Pollard, Mitchell and Eliot. The student/teacher ratios in literacy at Mitchell and Eliot are higher than other schools in the district. This will bring them in line with the other schools. The Eliot increase is necessary to remain in compliance with Title 1 rule.
Summer Bridge program in Literacy and Math. After being funded by a grant last year – and tuition-based in years before that, the hope is that guaranteed funds will increase the number of students who participate this summer
Ms. Hubbard gave an overview of the math curriculum, focusing on the goals of providing high quality curricular materials, aligning the curriculum and instruction with culturally proficient, anti-racist practices, and increasing the use of data and evidence-based targeted instruction. By partnering with DESE, NPS has selected a new core curriculum that meets these goals. Illustrative Math is being piloted this academic year along with Star Math, kindergarten assessments, and MCAS in grades 3-5. There are ongoing classroom assessment and data meetings with coaches and specialists with an eye toward continuing to create consistency across the district using data, benchmarks, and evidence-based practices, while also providing targeted tiered supports with increasing intensity to address areas of unfinished math learning.
Specific math budget requests include:
An increase in math specialists at Eliot, Newman, and High Rock to reflect the fact that students at Eliot and Newman need the most intervention
An increase in the K-5 math coordinator FTE from .5 to 1.0
School Committee members asked a variety of questions that led to discussions about equity, the assessment programs being used, mask-wearing and its impact on learning phonics, and the funding of the Summer Bridge program being a factor in increasing participation.
Update on Health & Safety
Dr. Barr prefaced the Superintendent’s update by stating that while some of what the district does is not to everyone’s liking, none of this is about punishing children. NPS and the SC follow Public Health and DESE guidelines, thinking about all of the aspects of the situation, and that they do the best they can to keep our kids in school.
Dr. Gutekanst presented slides showing how COVID-19 numbers have gone up a lot in the past few weeks, but that, luckily, if students get COVID, it is usually mild. He encouraged residents to register their children for the vaccination clinic on Saturday, January 8th at Pollard. The mask-friendly idea that has been discussed in the past has been put on hold for now.
Ms. Lammi presented slides with updated flow charts to help explain new isolation/quarantine requirements as well as changes to the Ruvna health attestation questions. She mentioned that these changes follow Department of Public Health guidelines as well as CDC guidelines and recognized that there is confusion about students who are more than six months past their second vaccine dose, but who have been unable to receive a booster shot. The district is continuing to ask for more clarity for these students. Further details can be found on pages 60-67 of the SC packet and the NPS website.
School Committee members asked clarifying questions about remote school options (which the DESE commissioner continues to state will not count toward the minimum number of school days) and pooled testing costs. The superintendent clarified that the pooled testing question comes up every time the joint health and safety committee meets and that they will continue to think about it, but that there are significant staffing concerns as well as impingement on student time in the classroom.
School Committee Comments
Mr. Pressman mentioned that there is good local coverage of SC meetings, but that the joint health and safety committee needs more transparency. It is harder for members of the community to trust when information is not being shared. Several other SC members agreed, but acknowledged that the school administrative team is running the entire school system during a pandemic and everyone is doing double and triple time right now. Sometimes more info isn’t always better, but that synthesis is what is important. Dr. Gutekanst agreed to try to communicate more, but reminded the SC that he updates them on the joint committee’s meetings at every SC meeting. He promised to discuss pooled testing again at the next joint committee meeting.
Next School Committee meeting is Tuesday, January 18, 2022