The Budget Subcommittee of the Greenfield School Committee met yesterday, and surprisingly, the recording was posted almost immediately:
Folks, I have sat through a lot of disheartening, soul-crushing town meetings in the last five years and while this one may not have been the worst in that regard, it ranks pretty high on my list.
The focus of the conversation was a review of what Superintendent Christine DeBarge and her administration are recommending be added back into the Greenfield Public Schools budget for fiscal year 2024 following the City Council’s recent allocation of an additional $1.1 million to the schools.1
According to the superintendent, the strategy in her recommendations is to get more staff positions funded out of the local budget rather than via grants. Since grants have an expiration date, any staff positions funded by them are left in a precarious situation, thereby contributing to the much-discussed “fiscal cliff” the district will face in FY25 when all of the ESSER grants from the federal government run out.2
The first two items the superintendent is recommending be added back into the budget are a full-time ETL coordinator at the Academy Of Early Learning and a 504 coordinator. They also kept an additional first grade teacher, which they may or may not end up actually needing. There was a bit of a sidebar conversation here regarding the numbers of incoming kindergartners for the 23/24 school year, which seems to be a bit up the air at the moment. The superintendent noted that while the homeless families being relocated to emergency housing in Greenfield by the state may impact enrollment, only a few of the families so far identified have school-aged children.
Also being added back into the budget are electives and sports at Greenfield Middle School. There were no questions about or discussions of either of these items.
Next, the superintendent said that she has put the Strings For Kids program back into the budget, but stated that she did so “for the sake of conversation.” She noted that the cost to the district is $26k and that there are currently 18 kids participating in it. She went on to say that her understanding coming into the district was that rationale for GPS funding SFK was to provide low-income kids with an opportunity to learn an instrument, but that based on the percentage of participants who also qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, that is not who is using the program.
This conversation led to a bit of a deep-dive a bit later in the meeting on the music program across the district. School Committee vice-chair Kathryn Martini asked Superintendent DeBarge what it would cost to have “a basic, well-rounded music program” across all the schools. “What is our long-term vision?” The superintendent cited some of the music teaching that is already happening around the district and noted the low enrollments in electives broadly.
The conversation turned to what a music program might look like, with DeBarge at one point asking the subcommittee how they thought that would work and then essentially backing Vice Chair Martini into a corner of saying whether she would rather see Strings For Kids funded, or have fourth-grade chorus restored as an after-school offering at a single location. Martini somewhat reluctantly said that if it came down to that, she would rather see a district offering. The superintendent agreed to take a look at how that might work and come back to the committee with more info over the next few months. As for Strings For Kids, funding for that program remains up in the air and the question will go to the full School Committee at their June 14 meeting.
With staffing positions being moved out of the ESSER grant funding, the subcommittee had questions about what that grant money would be used for in FY24. According to DeBarge, that would be all of the field trip funding, Green River building maintenance, the FY24 textbook money, all of the online instructional materials, curriculum and instructional supplies, $35k of facilities repairs, and $300k of IT hardware and software. She noted that all of these would need to either be funded differently or be eliminated after FY24 when the grant money goes away.
There was a question from the subcommittee as to whether textbook purchases could be funded in FY25 and beyond out of capital requests.3 From the discussion that ensued, the general sense seems to be that there is no obvious reason they couldn’t be, but no one knows for sure. There was some additional discussion here about the age of the district’s textbooks and instructional materials—apparently our biology textbooks are ten years old—as well as ongoing efforts to get them updated, but no real conclusions or decisions.
The final third of the meeting was a fairly detailed review of a bunch of specific line items based on questions from Vice Chair Martini. The standouts for me here were the fact that the middle school Spanish teacher is still on the cut list and that the district has been operating with no psychologist on staff due to several retirements. Vice Chair Martini pushed the superintendent on the question of the Spanish teacher, although as it stands, the Spanish offering at GMS is only a six-week class that is part of the electives rotation.
What I found disheartening about watching this meeting is what seems to be a general myopia in the district administration. I think that everyone means well and is trying to do their best in a tough situation, and I know that Greenfield as a relatively low-income community in a rural county has a lot of challenges that cannot be solved at the local level. Nonetheless, this discussion presents a district that treats electives as an after-thought. Music and art are not considered core instruction, and the non-required electives that are offered seem to be thought of only as a means of providing teachers with prep time for math and ELA.
I am doing my best to assume good intentions and give Superintendent DeBarge and the rest of the GPS administration the benefit of the doubt here, and I am fully aware that I am an outsider looking in and that I am offering no specific policy or implementation solutions.
That said, the discussion of the district’s music program at this meeting was appalling. When asked what a real music program would require and what the district’s strategic plan is, DeBarge offered up a single 4th grade chorus class and then presented it a choice between either that or Strings For Kids. In the meantime, the district has spent years making cut after cut after cut to what used to be thriving music programs at the elementary and middle schools, shuffled the remaining teachers around between schools, and saddled them with additional responsibilities.
When asked about what the district does to promote non-required electives, she said that they publish a descriptor paragraph and then wait to see who signs up. Then they cut the electives teachers and attempt to staff what classes they are able to offer with a rotation of substitutes. All of this is justified by “low enrollment.”
There may very well be a strategy document posted on the district website, but this approach and attitude is that of an administration that has given up on doing anything but what is required.
Alright, rant over. Sorry about that.
All of these budget updates now head to the next full School Committee meeting, which is this coming Wednesday (June 14) at 6 PM. It looks like no agenda has been posted yet.
“ESSER” is the Elementary & Secondary Education Relief fund created in 2021 as part of the US government’s COVID relief efforts. The funds were originally intended to assist school districts with remote education efforts, but in reality have been used by cash-strapped districts to close all sorts of funding gaps. There were several rounds of these grants (“ESSER 1,” “ESSER 2”, etc.), but they all expire in 2025, so anything that GPS is currently paying for out of those funds will need to either be eliminated next fiscal year, or another funding source will need to be identified. ↩︎
Generally, capital expenditures are large-dollar amounts spent on durable things with a multi-year lifespan. ↩︎