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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

School deficit may lead to major cuts

NASHUA – Even if half the cuts being discussed by school district officials were to become reality, services and programs offered at city schools stand to be drastically diminished next year.

In a Christmas Eve e-mail, Superintendent Mark Conrad sent Board of Education members a list of possible cuts to make up for a projected $6 million hole in next year’s budget. The three-page list impacts virtually every department and program in the district.

Among the reductions being eyed are the widespread elimination of teachers, administrators and other various positions, cuts to athletics that could include the elimination of some sports teams, reductions or outright elimination of programs such as REACH and the Phoenix Program and no longer offering full-day kindergarten at the city’s low-income elementary schools. That is just a sample of ways the school district is looking to save next year.

In the e-mail, Conrad wrote that several staff groups within the school district have been involved in discussing possible budget reductions for next year, which has led to some inaccurate rumors working their way through the schools.

“I truly believe it has been better for the budget process and for organizational morale to delay formally discussing specific reductions until January,” Conrad wrote. “However, I think it is important for you to be aware of the most significant line-item reductions that are being discussed.”

On Monday, Conrad said he doesn’t know yet which of the proposed cuts outlined in his e-mail to the board will be included in his formal budget presentation to the board Jan. 19, but said most of them will be brought up during the discussion.

Those reductions not included in his proposed budget will be presented to the school board for consideration if more cuts are deemed necessary, Conrad said.

“The majority of things seen on that list will be on one of those tiers,” Conrad said Monday.

Conrad is scheduled to meet with school board members Wednesday night to discuss the effect cutting teachers will have on class sizes, as well as electives that would no longer be offered at the high schools. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Nashua High School North.

“One of the things we have to discuss is what we think the impact of the reductions will be on students and to student achievement,” Conrad said.

Another budget meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday when Conrad and the board will discuss the future of the Phoenix Program, the school district’s alternative program for “at-risk” students. The program serves about 75 students and costs about $1 million per year to operate.

The school district has been dealing with financial troubles since it was discovered that the department overspent its budget by $3.3 million. The same financial mismanagement that led to last year’s deficit was worked into this year’s budget, forcing the district to leave 60 positions vacant, saving $2 million. Cuts were made this year in other areas, such as school supplies and overtime.

Conrad has said next year’s projected deficit is an attempt at getting the school district’s “financial house in order,” ensuring the school district is accounting for all mandated costs, such as special education, severance and raises, with a balanced budget at the end of the year.

Board of Education President-elect Robert Hallowell said the board will have to wait until Conrad makes his budget presentation to begin making decisions about what needs to be done to address the school district’s budget woes.

“I don’t think there are going to be any easy choices,” Hallowell said. “You start to think about things you can do and you quickly run into things are pretty meaningful.”

In an effort to save money, the Board of Education has asked the city’s teachers union to renegotiate raises for next year. Union president Bob Sherman said Monday that no decision has been made yet and that he has meetings scheduled with Conrad and Hallowell to talk about the situation. The board has given the union until Jan. 22 to make a decision.

If nothing changes, the school district will have to set aside another $3 million to cover the 5.6 percent increase in teacher salaries for next year, which covers step increases and cost-of-living raises.

Conrad said Monday that even if teachers opt to reopen negotiations on the contract, that process could take some time.

“We know we have to move forward in proposing a budget,” he said.

Conrad’s e-mail to the board outlined reductions that are being discussed across all of the school district’s programs.

In the high schools, one of the possibilities being considered is reducing teachers by reducing the number of credits that juniors and seniors would earn. That would essentially require juniors and seniors to take fewer than eight classes a year, with students either arriving late or leaving early or being in a study hall.

At the elementary level, reductions being discussed include eliminating the four teaching positions held vacant this year and reducing teaching positions further. Maximum class sizes of 28 to 30 would be set for grades 3 through 5.

Also at the elementary level, possible cuts include reducing specialist positions such as art and physical education, eliminating funding for instrumental music lessons and eliminating full-day kindergarten In Title I schools. The five Title I schools with full-day kindergarten would return to half-day programs.

In the middle schools, the school district is looking at eliminating the eighth-grade world language program, which gives students the opportunity to take a foreign language before high school. The off-site suspension center is also being considered for elimination.

Under athletics, the school district is looking at eliminating one more or athletic programs or teams, as well as “restructuring” middle school athletics.

In other areas, the school district could “further reduce or eliminate” the REACH program, which the district’s program for gifted and talented students. Two REACH teachers were among the vacant positions left unfilled this year. The Phoenix Program could also face reductions or elimination, with “less expensive options for students who require alternative education.”

Director of student services, assistant director of plant operations and assistant principals are among the positions that could be on the chopping block for next year. Specific figures about how many teaching positions could be lost are not yet clear.

Conrad’s e-mail included a few areas where funding would be increased. The school district is looking at adding a teacher for middle school deaf students, adding a special education bus and adding funding for new computers.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or