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School Committee attempts to prevent additional layoffs

May 2, 2013

By Chris Maza


WILBRAHAM — The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee voted on April 26 to earmark $300,000 in the Emergency and Deficiency Fund as a precaution to avoid more potential staff reductions next school year.

School Committee Chair D. John McCarthy explained the transfer was made because of the uncertainty as to whether the towns would approve the full assessments for the fiscal year 2014 school budget at their respective Annual Town Meetings.

"We put the money aside in case that money doesn't come through so we won't have to lay off more people," he said.

McCarthy explained that the questions regarding the assessment revolve around the town of Wilbraham's decision to take back Memorial School in spite of the fact that the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) has a lease that has not yet expired.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has been renting the Memorial School building and using it as the temporary site for Cathedral High School since its building was damaged by the June 1, 2011 tornado. The Diocese has paid HWRSD $300,000 annually for the use of the building and it has been the assertion of the Board of Selectmen that such revenue should go to the town because it is a town-owned building.

HWRSD cleared its first hurdle when the Hampden Annual Town Meeting passed its budget with no objections.

McCarthy also pointed out that the $300,000 the School Committee voted to put aside was in addition to $600,000 in Emergency and Deficiency funds that were already allocated to offset budget deficiencies. Even with these efforts, he said, the schools are going to be forced to lay off some teachers.

"We don't want to put any more teachers in a position where they might lose their jobs," he said. "Lay off notices were already sent out to cover our current budget gap and unfortunately, the way things are going, we'll have to follow through with those."

Superintendent M. Martin O'Shea explained that the notices were sent out as part of the collective bargaining agreement between the district and the teachers.

"We had an obligation to notify the affected licensed professional teachers by the middle of April," he said. "Contractually, we had to let them know within 60 days of the effective date of the cuts."

HWRSD has made a conscious effort to ensure that its staff was aware of the budget situation and possible reductions, O'Shea said.

"On two occasions prior, we invited staff to budget forums and last week we held two more," he said.

At its April 9 meeting, the School Committee voted to approve the reduction of the equivalent of nine full-time positions.

At Minnechaug Regional High School, 2.5 full time equivalent (FTE) teaching positions will be cut while three FTE middle school and 3.6 elementary teaching jobs will not exist next year.

O'Shea said that three of the positions would have most likely been eliminated even if the district wasn't in a budget predicament due to declining enrollment.

He also said in a letter to the community dated April 12 that "elementary related arts (music, art, science and PE [physical education]) where instruction will be trimmed, but not eliminated."

O'Shea explained to Reminder Publications, "We have two elementary music, two elementary art, four elementary PE and four elementary science positions, which are science specialists providing pull-out extra assistance, that will be reduced from full-time positions to 0.8 [FTE].

"It will diminish services, but we felt we had to make that reduction rather than cut core instruction and compromise class size," he continued.

In addition to those, 12 paraprofessionals, one clerical position, one administration position and one district wide support position will be cut. School psychologists will be reduced by 1.5 FTE.

McCarthy and O'Shea both stressed that the budget picture was not yet settled. McCarthy said that in addition to the uncertainty regarding what the towns would approve, the level of aid the district would receive from the state remains up in the air.

"The actual number of layoffs is kind of fluid because our budget numbers are fluid at this point," McCarthy said. "We sent out notices and we hope that the number of notices we sent out are higher than the actual number of people we will have to lay off."

O'Shea added, "It's all based on our anticipated costs and revenues and there are a lot of moving parts, so we will continue to monitor the doings in the state Legislature. For instance, the [House of Representatives' Committee on] Ways and Means' proposed Chapter 70 aid was lower than Gov. [Deval] Patrick's, but moderately higher than what we budgeted."

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