Watertown’s public schools have made some big strides toward rebuilding the district after it suffered cuts in recent years, and in creating a budget that school and town officials can trust.
School officials presented their budget to the Town Council Tuesday night, in a session that had a much different feel from the previous year.
“What a difference a year makes!” Town Council President Mark Sideris said.
Last year, the Council Chamber was filled with parents worried about the budget, and the council had a lot of questions about school official’s budget request that asked for nearly triple the increase as was ultimately given by the town. Ultimately the shortfall was not as dire and proved to be due to some budgeting errors.
This year, the schools have a new director of business services, and the budget was in line with the town budget. The room was quiet and nearly empty besides School Committee members and a parent.
“Thank you for all you are doing this year,” said Councilor Vincent Piccirilli. “We are committed to a multi-year effort to improve the district and get it where it should be. It speaks well to the cooperative work (between the town and schools).”
The budget request or Fiscal 2016 – the 2015-16 school year – is $41.9 million. That is an increase of $2.69 million or 6.87 percent.
The biggest part of the increase, 57 percent, comes from “move ahead” costs, or the cost of moving the current school program and staff to next year, said School Director of Business Services Charlie Kellner. Another 42.4 percent will be spent on new positions, and the district will have significant savings on tuition – 36 percent.
Superintendent Jean Fitzgerald said the new positions have a few priorities.
“Classroom support at the elementary schools, computer science and environmental science teachers at the high school and all the schools will have full-time library/media specialists,” Fitzgerald said.
The librarians are positions being restored from budget cuts in recent years, said School Committee Chairwoman Eileen Hsu-Balzer, as are increased custodial services.
Another priority of the district has been building in-district special education programs, Fitzgerald said.
“We feel strongly Watertown students belong in our schools,” Fitzgerald said.
With all the progress, Councilor Cecilia Lenk wanted to know how the district is measuring progress.
“How will we know we are getting there and how do we know where we need to add resources?” Lenk said.
Along with things like test results, the school district is looking at student’s experiences, said School Committee member John Portz. One of the measurements is a survey of their career in the Watertown Schools.
“In order to get their cap and gowns, seniors needed to fill out the survey,” Portz said. He added that results of the surveys and other information will be available in the fall.
The Town Council did have some areas of concern.
Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she knows what it is like not speaking English fluently when starting school. She said she worries about how students learning English as a second language are fitting in to classrooms, and has heard from constituents that some have been an interruption in the classroom.
Superintendent Jean Fitzgerald said she has not heard of problems, but will look into it.
Councilor Aaron Dushku thanked school officials for working with the Police Department to bring back a school resource officer at Watertown Middle School. He also applauded them for educating students about the dangers of drugs.
The athletic participation fee is something that Councilor Ken Woodland would like to see eliminated. Superintendent Jean Fitzgerald said families can get a discount or have the fee waived if they cannot afford the fee. Woodland said it still has an adverse effect.
“I spoke to a handful of students who are not participating in sports because they didn’t want the stigma associated with financial hardship,” Woodland said.
The entire town budget, including the school budget, will be voted on by the Town Council on Tuesday, June 9 at the meeting beginning at 7:15 p.m.