Pembroke School Board mulls major cuts to next year’s budget

A community forum on the merging of Pembroke Village and Hill schools on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. (NiCK STOICO / Monitor staff)

A community forum on the merging of Pembroke Village and Hill schools on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. (NiCK STOICO / Monitor staff) Nick Stoico

By JEREMY MARGOLIS

Monitor staff

Published: 03-27-2024 3:54 PM

In Kadyn Dean’s favorite class at the Pembroke Hill School, she works with robots, builds cardboard houses, and helps maintain a local hiking trail. 

In the past week, the third grader learned the class – called ILAB – is not expected to continue next year.

“If I lose ILAB, I will be sad,” Kadyn told the Pembroke School Board Tuesday night, two weeks after voters chopped $3 million, or 10%, from the school district’s proposed budget for next year.

The innovative science, technology, engineering, art and math integration program launched six years ago by teacher Jenny Jones will likely be one of many casualties in a school district left reeling following a March 9 vote that pitted weary taxpayers against education leaders.

Kadyn, the daughter of school board member Kerri Dean, joined a growing number of educators, parents and students who are pushing back against the cuts.

On Tuesday – the school board’s second meeting since the vote – community members advocated for retaining certain programs while board members debated what they described as an array of impossible choices. 

“This is a horrible situation that the board is in,” board member Amy Manzelli said. “I’m not in favor of any of these cuts, but at this point, I have to make decisions that are bad and less bad.”

Of the $3 million in required cuts, Superintendent Patty Sherman recommended the elimination of $2.3 million worth of staff positions and $671,000 in non-personnel costs, including for supplies, maintenance, special education, and curriculum development time for teachers. 

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About half of Sherman’s proposed cuts would apply to Pembroke Academy, 37% would apply to the kindergarten through fourth grade Pembroke Hill School, and 13% would apply to the fifth through eighth grade Three Rivers School.

Last week, employees who are expected to be laid off next year were notified by their school principals.

School board chair Andy Camidge said the number of employees to be laid off is likely to be announced next week. The board has not set a definite timeline of when and where the cuts will be made.

Some board members supported eliminating a bus, which would save the district approximately $68,000. They also discussed cutting some or all co-curricular activities, which include sports, music, and clubs. District administrators have recommended retaining these activities, and most board members indicated they were reluctant to make cuts to them, too.

“I can’t find an equitable way in my head to pick and choose which stuff should go away,” Camidge said. “As the father of someone who plays an instrument as obscure as the bagpipes, I don’t want to punish people for doing something unique.”

The discussion came a week after Pembroke Academy students pleaded with the board to save their co-curricular options.

“The purpose of high school isn’t just education,” freshman Campbell Nivison said. “High school is also supposed to be a place where students can explore new opportunities and come to grips with what they want their future to look like, and extracurricular activities are absolutely essential to that mission.”

The March 9 vote – which Nivison described as “appalling” – will keep the budget for next year roughly level with this year’s. The board has said their proposed $3 million increase – which would have increased taxes by $2,346 annually for a home worth $300,000 – was necessary because of skyrocketing special education, transportation, and staff benefits costs.

Some residents argued the tax burden was simply too steep to bear. William O’Mahoney, a 69-year-old retiree on a fixed income proposed the budget amendment that passed, by a 305-134 vote.

Over the past week, after employees expected to be laid off were notified, a picture of what the school district could look like next year and beyond has begun to emerge.

“If we cut things that draw people to Pembroke Academy and we don’t have those anymore, now we have an enrollment problem and then we have an incoming revenue problem,” Pembroke Academy social studies teacher Kristin Doyle worried.

In a letter to School Board members, Jenny Jones, the teacher and creator of the ILAB program, described the loss of her program as “crippling.” She’s been told she will be reassigned to a special education role if the board pulls the plug on her current role.

“I dedicated my career to Pembroke Schools and asked for very little,” wrote Jones, who has taught in the district for 23 years. “My loss can not be rolled over to a position without a gesture of care. I have nothing to start a new career with.”