BURLINGTON -- It's budget time again for the schools, and the prospects aren't pretty. Faced with declining student enrollment, hefty federal funding cuts and double-digit hikes in health-insurance premiums, the Burlington School Board has begun mulling its belt-tightening options for fiscal year 2006-07. At a recent finance-committee work session, one option considered proposes closing H.O. Wheeler and Lawrence Barnes, the two elementary schools in the Old North End.
"This year, the financial picture is bleak," laments Fred Lane, who chairs the committee. "It's fair to say that the Bush administration has really not stepped up to the plate and done what it said it would do with respect to schools. This is a fairly large collection of chickens coming home to roost."
According to Lane, the district faces a $600,000 deficit this year, with a projected deficit of between $1.2 million and $1.7 million next year. The district had expected a 4-percent increase in federal Title I money. Instead, the feds cut funding by 2 percent, or about $500,000.
The fiscal forecast doesn't factor in an inevitable rise in employee health-insurance premiums, which have gone up between 12 and 19 percent annually over the last five years. Nor, Lane adds, do they include pay raises for teachers, clerical staff, administrators and their staffs, all with contracts expiring next June. In fact, the district is due to negotiate seven new labor contracts over the next 24 months, and anticipates a livable-wage campaign this fall aimed at boosting the pay of paraeducators.
Lane emphasizes that closing schools is just one of several possibilities being considered. Other cost-cutting measures could include eliminating educational programs and extracurricular activities, deferring nonessential maintenance and increasing class sizes, none of which is appealing to parents or teachers, Lane says.
"From my perspective, you have to look at all the options," comments former Burlington Schools Superintendent Lyman Amsden, who now works as an advisor to the district. "Is school closure an option? Of course it is. The reality is, the neighborhood schools are expensive." Closing two neighborhood schools would save the district $1 million a year, but Amsden is quick to emphasize that such a decision should not be based on budgetary constraints, but on student equity. "If you're going to look at closing schools, you've got to look at what's right for kids, too," he says. "It shouldn't just be a money issue."
If the Old North End schools were closed, those students would be sent to schools in other neighborhoods. Amsden points to a recent school district study of math scores among low-income students. Those at Wheeler and Barnes -- where the poverty rate is nearly 100 percent -- performed worse than low-income students at the city's four other elementary schools, where the population is more socio-economically diverse.
Any attempt to close two schools in the city's poorest neighborhood will likely face stiff resistance, as it did the last time the idea was proposed, in 2001.
"I think the community was quite clear a couple of years ago that neighborhood schools are the heart of the community, and to shut them down would do irreparable harm to the character of our neighborhoods," says Christopher Haessly a School Board member representing Ward 2. "We need to look at a lot of different options, but closing neighborhood schools should not be one of them."
Haessly believes such a move would be particularly hard on blue-collar parents, who would face transportation and other challenges staying involved in a school outside their neighborhood.
The finance committee meets again for a second work session next week.