Big cuts proposed for Hopkinton school programs

  • Hopkinton town moderator James Newsome collects a vote at Hopkinton High School on Saturday morning, May 17, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 6/19/2020 5:11:11 PM
Modified: 6/19/2020 5:11:00 PM

The Hopkinton School Board renewed contracts for about 60 school employees Thursday night, ensuring their jobs for the next school year while forcing program cuts elsewhere.

Earlier this month, the board postponed voting on the contracts for teacher aides, paraeducators, food-service workers and office assistants because they did not know if future budget reductions would affect staff positions.

“I’m sorry as a school board member if it was unclear what we were doing,” board member Norm Goupil said at the meeting. “We needed a week to look at the budget and be responsible. I didn’t want you to think it was a pink slip being permanent.”

The Hopkinton School Board has faced the job of cutting back the school budget this month, after two previously proposed budgets for fiscal year 2021 were struck down by Hopkinton voters, who participated in two drive-in voting days in May.

The district is currently operating under an emergency order issued by Gov. Chris Sununu in April that allows school districts to operate on a “flat budget,” using the same amount of money as last year. Since things like wages, health insurance premiums and retirement contributions for employees inevitably rise every year, the school must reduce its projected expenditures by $500,000 in other areas in order to start the new fiscal year on July 1 with the same budget as last year.

“I can understand the desire to limit the tax burden and as a member of the school board I am committed to doing that as much as I can,” said board member Seth Aframe. “There are costs that rise every year that add nothing new to our schools.”

The Hopkinton town moderator has set Aug. 15 as the date of the next public vote on the budget.

In the five-hour school board meeting, which happened via Zoom Thursday night, Superintendent Steve Chamberlin presented a list of proposed budget cuts for the board members to peruse. The list included reducing or eliminating an elementary school math support, the Student Assistance Program, and a drug, alcohol and violence prevention program for middle and high school students.

The suggested list of budget cuts overshoots the actual goal by $91,222.64, leaving some wiggle room for the school board to make adjustments and decide which of the items don’t have to be cut.

Aframe and Goupil, as well as board members Andrea Folsom and Jim O’Brien, spoke against cutting support for math, though the reduction it would offer – $110,835.05 – is significant.

“I know it’s a big-ticket item,” Aframe said. “Reading specialists have become ingrained in how we think about schooling. This seems parallel to me.”

Similarly, Folsom, O’Brien and board member Rob Nadeau all spoke against cutting the SAP drug and alcohol prevention program, which is $43,200.

“I would not support removing the SAP program; I think that is essential,” said Folsom. “A lot of these programs hit our most vulnerable, but the very definition of this program is for our most vulnerable.”

The district has also proposed cutting football, golf and alpine skiing at the high school level with a high cost – $14,289. Also proposed was eliminating sports entirely at the middle school level for a reduction of $42,778.

The list also proposes ending the contract with the outside school psychologist service the district uses for assessments. Instead, the psychologist currently on staff would take on assessments in addition to testing and parent-teacher consultations.

The proposed budget cuts also include eliminating most of woodworking classes and significantly reduce art in middle and high school and curtail music-playing opportunities for middle schoolers. In addition, some high school English and science classes would be eliminated along with field trips, an independent studies program, and a proposed library media assistant. Other costs could be saved by removing funds for teacher leadership training, freezing non-union salaries, and cutting use of heating and propane, among other things.

While the proposed budget cuts include elimination of several positions, they are all vacant positions that the district would not hire anyone to fill, according to Chamberlin. No current employees would lose their jobs.

Many community members called in to express their opinions on the budget during the meeting’s two public comment periods. Most were upset at the possibility of reductions.

“I’m pretty much devastated after hearing the cuts that have been suggested tonight,” said Hopkinton resident Devon Chaffee. “These cuts are so severe, they’re so significant, and they’re so clearly going to hurt the students in our town at a time when they have been through so much. They have been yanked out of their school due to COVID-19, their lives have been disrupted, many of their parents have been laid off, and now they are going to be returning to school potentially with far fewer resources than the school that they left.”

At the end of the meeting, the school board voted unanimously, 5-0, to approve contracts for non-union staff and custodial staff.

The board will meet again on June 25 at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the bu further.

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