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Schools' crises may be averted

Date: 7/27/2010

July 28, 2010

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD -- Juniper Park Elementary School, Fort Meadow Early Childhood Center and 75 positions could be saved if the City Council votes to restore $774,345 to the School Department at its special meeting on July 29.

The council passed an $864,000 cut to the department's fiscal year 2011 (FY11) budget last month causing residents to come out in force to condemn the measure at a four-hour School Committee Finance meeting in South Middle School's auditorium on July 20. Cuts have already eliminated all elementary school librarians and the middle school foreign language program.

City Council Finance Chair Richard Onofrey Jr. stated previously that he would make a motion to restore the funds if the teachers' union agreed to a pay freeze for the next 12 months. Union leaders met with city officials July 22 and agreed to $537,400 in concessions, according to Mayor Daniel Knapik.

Knapik called the council's tactics toward the union as bullying and urged those in attendance of the School Committee's Finance meeting to implore their councilors to go back on their decision to cut the school department's FY11 budget.

"We have the money. This [problem] has been self-induced. The money is there. The games have to stop and they have to stop now!" Knapik said.

School Committee member Mary Beth Ogulewicz Sacco agreed. "This really isn't a budgetary problem but a political problem within this community," she added.

City Councilor and Finance Committee member Christopher Keefe said, "I disagree with the [statement] that it was bullying. We're allowed one thing: to reduce [the budget]. We weren't willing to fund $743,000 in step increases on the backs of people who've been laid off."

If the funding is not restored, the department will have no choice but to close Juniper Park, Fort Meadow, the administrative offices on Ashley Street, eliminate four more librarians, 11 art teachers, one music staff person, 12 guidance counselors, one substance abuse counselor, one coach and 15 technology teachers, Superintendent Shirley Alvira explained.

Other alternatives include redistricting the elementary schools and restructuring South Middle School into grades five to eight, she added.

"I don't care if anyone [working] in Ashley Street comes back. We have to have teachers in the classrooms to receive the kids. Take whatever salary I have," Alvira said.

School Committee member and Finance Committee member William Duval noted eliminating librarians would mean an automatic loss of accreditation for all graduates.

Vincent Baker, a guidance counselor at North Middle School, said, "The idea of cutting the guidance department is not possible in my personal and professional opinion. We're highly trained professionals. We're raising citizens, they're not just students. We're providing guidance and education to the children who are the future of this country and it's not something you can cut from year to year."

Onofrey said he's considering the teachers' union's proposal and has yet to make a decision on whether or not he'll vote in favor of restoring funding to the school department.

"The dust has settled and we're all ready to move on but there are going to be some bruised feelings for a long time," Keefe said.