Efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak are straining municipal budgets. And in one diverse town in Greater Boston, the budget for public education has already taken a hit — and reignited an acrimonious battle over resources.
Last week, Randolph Public Schools officials implemented staff furloughs and scheduling cuts affecting dozens of district staff, including paraprofessionals and custodians.
The measures were rolled out quickly and with little explanation, though the shortfalls in Randolph’s budget evidently predate measures to slow the pandemic. But town council president Jim Burgess said the virus will deal critical damage to Randolph’s finances and that “across the board-type cuts” will be necessary in the town — and, he suggests, in others like it.
Teachers’ unions and advocates statewide said they’re suddenly on the alert for more such cuts statewide. On Monday, Natick Public Schools followed suit, announcing 93 furloughs affecting mostly cafeteria and after-school staff. Julie McDonough, chair of Natick's school committee, said those workers "will be brought back as soon as school re-opens."
In Randolph, the furloughs have darkened the beginning of what was supposed to be an era of good feelings when it came to Massachusetts’ school budgets — thanks to the Student Opportunity Act, an ambitious reinvestment in the state’s public schools that passed into law last fall.
On March 27 — about two weeks after Randolph Public Schools first closed — Superintendent Thea Stovell cited the “unprecedented emergency situation” caused by the outbreak as she introduced “temporary furlough or partial reductions of certain staff” not currently assigned to report for work, including paraprofessionals, secretaries and custodians.
For part-time employees in those categories, the furloughs are mandatory. Full-time employees were given a choice: accept a voluntary furlough or see their hours cut down to 20 hours a week. In both cases, the furloughs will last either until schools reopen — no earlier than May 4, by order of Gov. Charlie Baker — or until the scheduled end of the school year on June 23.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘We were already budgeted in,’” said Karen Miller, who has served as a paraprofessional in the district for 25 years and represents them in the union. “So what went wrong?”
In Randolph and statewide, paraprofessionals earn markedly less than teachers: between $20 and $23 an hour during the school year, Miller said. Their principal role is to support students with disabilities as they go about their day.
“We’re the first people [those students] see when they get off the bus,” Miller said. As the news of the furloughs broke, she worried that meant her team’s stabilizing presence would be lost to vulnerable students when they need it most.
Among the state’s 100 largest school districts, only four have higher concentrations of students with disabilities than Randolph’s, which was at 23.4% last year. That’s a good deal higher than in neighboring towns and in the state overall, where students with disabilities comprised just over 18 percent of all enrollment.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘We were already budgeted in.' So what went wrong?”Karen Miller, a veteran paraprofessional in the Randolph Public Schools
In a statement sent to WBUR, Superintendent Stovell described the furloughs as “a very difficult decision that was not entered into lightly,” and cited “loss of revenues and impending budget cuts.”
Both Stovell and the union said that only about a third of those employees with the choice opted for a furlough over a reduced workload. As a union representative, Miller explained the choice to her fellow paraprofessionals. "If you were taking care of elderly, or in a high-risk category, we said to make a sheet of pros and cons" before deciding whether or not to accept the furlough, she said.
As of April 8, Jeff Riley, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, still “strongly recommended” that districts continue to pay hourly employees through the closure so that districts can resume in-person learning as early as possible.
Cuts Pitched As Necessary, Some Parents ‘Appalled’
Jim Burgess, the president of Randolph’s town council, argued that the cuts were a necessary part of the town’s reaction to a crisis, and a fiscal environment turned suddenly bleak.
But Burgess also acknowledged that the cuts were not entirely due to pandemic-related costs. Before COVID-19 materialized, he said, “we had some glitches” where projected money didn’t materialize, especially from the town’s rink and recreation accounts.
Burgess wasn't specific about the precise nature and size of that preexisting shortfall, but he said: “If you don’t make that revenue, your budget is in deficit right away." And now, as the effort to promote distancing has slowed retail and food sales, Burgess said that “revenues aren’t tracking anywhere near where we would expect them to be.”
That led Randolph’s town manager to request all public departments to seek out savings where they could. “We’ve already laid off all of our recreational staff,” Burgess said, with other cuts being made in town administration.
But Burgess also argued that the district has already demonstrated goodwill amid the crisis. Per instructions from state regulators, they are trying to introduce online learning to households — nearly half of which are labeled “economically disadvantaged” in state data.
“We raided our libraries, anywhere and everywhere we could find a computer, a laptop or an iPad,” Burgess said.
But even as they acknowledge the unique challenges of the pandemic, some Randolph parents said that the district’s overall transition has been flawed.
“I would say that for the first two weeks [after schools closed], we heard absolutely nothing,” said Yahaira Lopez, a mother and advocate in the district.
On the third week, Lopez said, “I started getting emails on Sunday saying we were logging into Google Classroom on a Monday — mind you, Sunday in the evening… It was too much content to send families all at once.” (That experience doesn’t match that of Karen Miller, the paraprofessional, who said that she has watched her colleagues “jump right in” to remote learning.)
For eight years Lopez has raised her twin 10-year-old sons in Randolph. One — diagnosed with autism — has been in “one of the happiest places he’s ever been” during the closure, Lopez said. But she said an annual meeting about his education has been cancelled, and that she has resigned herself to the fact that he’s “probably going to regress, academically.”
“We are already beginning to hear the narrative: 'We have to do more with less.' ”Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association
Last year, Lopez ran an unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the school committee, calling — among other things — for additional school funding. And though she serves as vice president of Randolph’s special education parent advisory council (SEPAC), Lopez said she learned of the furloughs on Facebook.
It was frustrating, she said, given the effects on paraprofessionals who are “instrumental” for kids like hers: “Clearly, they’ve made a budget cut, and decisions around special education, without bringing SEPAC to the table… Parents are confused.”
In an April 1 email to town and district officials, Lopez complained that she felt that the furloughs were a sign of under-funding, and that parents had been left out of the process.
The email got cordial replies from a Randolph school committee member and the district’s director of special education. But later that night Burgess weighed in, saying that Lopez “may want to look at the policies you support and advocate for as a reason for our system[’]s troubles and not the lack of funding.”
Lopez said she recognized “so much raw feelings” among both parents and officials during the closure. But she said she and other parents were “appalled” by Burgess’s tone.
In an interview with WBUR, Burgess — who has served in Randolph town government since 1986 — acknowledges that he can be a controversial figure in town, saying, “You either like me or you don’t… I tell the people how I feel.”
And he doubled down on the email’s argumentative tone, saying, “Are some students not receiving attention? Of course. Parents are gonna have to step up to that, especially during this time,” he said. “Maybe parents are just upset that they have to do a little more work.”
Burgess said he's received emails from hundreds of educators across Massachusetts describing the furloughs as "unconscionable." He also observed — accurately — that in the past decade, Randolph has funded its schools at 125 to 143% of the state-legislated minimum spending in recent years. (Statewide, the average spending is around 131% of the minimum.) But union officials pushed back, saying that number belies a regular rhythm of staffing cuts in the schools.
For his part, Burgess said he interpreted the reaction to the furloughs to mean that teachers and their unions are scared that if these sorts of cuts are happening in Randolph, “it’s gonna be able to happen everywhere else.”
And given the context — what Burgess called “a worse economic downturn than 9/11” or the 2008 financial crisis — “they’re right.”
Randolph may have been the school district in Massachusetts to make these sorts of cuts based, in part, on the pandemic. But it’s too soon to say if the cuts there and in Natick will become a statewide trend.
Merrie Najimy — president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union — said Stovell's decision “set off an alarm” at her office.
Najimy argued that paraprofessionals like those affected in Randolph “play as much of a role in supporting students’ academic and social-emotional needs as educators.” She added that the complex transition to remote learning will require “all hands on deck.”
Najimy said she’s only heard rumblings that other districts might follow Randolph’s lead. But she said the rhetoric that preceded the passage of the Student Opportunity Act — for which the MTA lobbied prominently — has returned: “We are already beginning to hear the narrative: 'We have to do more with less.' ”
Rep. Alice Peisch, co-chair of the state legislature’s education committee, declined to comment on the specifics of the Randolph furloughs. But she did say that the pandemic has already dealt a seismic blow to Massachusetts’ fiscal picture. “State revenue’s obviously taking a big hit,” Peisch said. “People aren’t going out and purchasing things.”
Then again, she expressed some surprise that talks of staffing cuts were on the table in school districts, given that budgets have been made and federal aid seems set to flow into the state.
“We used a lot of federal stimulus money to hold districts harmless with respect to Chapter 70” during the financial crisis of 2008, Peisch said. With some federal money for public schools already set aside in the CARES Act — and with the state’s rainy-day fund in good shape — “I would assume we’ll continue to prioritize education” during and after this slowdown, she added.
But Peisch also said it was “premature” to promise that the state can implement the planned infusion of new funding tied to the passage of the Student Opportunity Act last fall, which she helped push through. The proposed new spending on state aid to schools — totaling more than $300 million — that Gov. Charlie Baker put forward in his draft budget in January are based on revenue assumptions that are already out of date.
So while Peisch doesn’t expect see educational services — especially those for students with disabilities — cut back notably in the midst of this crisis, the idea of a new world of funding going forward does seem to be at risk: “We just don’t know how badly the state revenue’s going to be hit.”
This segment aired on April 15, 2020.