School daze, school daze
Under Correria’s rule days
No money for readin' or 'ritin' or
The budget situation is
Cool crisp mornings and sleepy eyed kids waiting on the corner, sure signs that another school year has started. It’s funny to think that in neighborhoods dotted throughout the city this is the first time in over a hundred years where the start of the school year didn’t bring with it frenzied mornings and noisy playgrounds. For the folks who live near and around the 12 schools recently closed, the start of the school year has brought some tranquility.
Things are different however, for the Fall River School Department which is dealing with frenzied citizens and noisy school committee meetings. Here we are not even a month into the new school year and already all hell is breaking loose. The grand opening of 3 new super-sized schools has proved to be a logistics nightmare. Just weeks before the start of school teachers still had no idea where to report and office paras are still struggling to get a handle on all the files and records that have to be taken care of. At a time where the experts say small class size and small schools are the way to go, we seem to be moving away from both! We’ve replaced neighborhood schools with structures that resemble prisons.
Every school in the city is dealing with larger classroom sizes and staff reductions. Every principal has had to make the tough decisions on what to cut, while hoping to maintain a quality of education. I don’t think the opinion of the Fall River School Department has ever been lower (and that is saying something!) and I personally have never doubted the ability of our schools to provide a quality education, until now.
Our school department is in chaos and everyone is pointing a finger at Superintendent Dr. Nick Fischer, but there is enough blame to go around.
Let's start by blaming the Lambert administration for committing us to these new schools. I think new schools are great but not when they cost more to operate than all the closed schools combined. Of course that doesn't even include the costs for transportation that we are required to provide because now kids don't live near the school they attend. What is the cost of that transportation anyway? At one meeting it fluctuated from 1-1.7 million. The other day I heard someone say over 2 million, is that right?! I could do a whole blog post on new schools alone, but let's just end this by saying we should have really but more thought into this.
Let's also blame the current mayor. This year's school budget is 8 million less than the Superintendent had requested. It's 2 million less than last year! Even if you level fund the budget, that is provide the exact same amount as last year, the school department would have less money to spend on education. There are certain costs that are going to increase, (utility costs like HEATING, come to mind!), and now you have to find places to make cuts. While the Mayor was proposing a budget reduction for the school department he also proposed for them to pay a storm water runoff fee. So he's cutting their budget AND hitting them with additional costs. On top of that some health insurance costs have been transferred to from the city budget to the school department budget. Again, he's cutting their budget and hitting them with additional costs!
Let's not hold the school committee blameless! Back in February when they voted for the school reorganization plan there were questions about the true capacity of these schools. This is the night when you're making the decision and you're on the committee and you have no idea what the capacity is? Where's the oversight there? With barely a whimper they approved the Mayor's anorexic, (it's thin and makes me want to throw up), school budget. I think the real problem with the school committee is they, as a body, would rather criticize the administration than find solutions. Recently when several federal grants were being reviewed at a school committee meeting the committee questioned if these grants could be used to bring back staff that had been laid off. The Superintendent and his team advised the committee that the federal grants did not allow for funds to be used to pay for a position that had been paid for in the previous year through district funds. The Assistant Superintendent stressed that the administration had reviewed the grants for just that purpose but it simply is not allowed. It would seem pretty straight forward, but instead the administration was blamed for being ‘reluctant’ to review the grants and not following the directives of the school committee. This was a hostile display with members of the school committee dressing down the Superintendent during a public meeting. The school committee could have made their points respectfully and with civility but instead chose to embarrass the administration team during a public forum. If there is an adversarial relationship between the school committee and the administration, the school committee has to at least take some blame for creating it.
Of course the Superintendent has to take some of the blame. I’ve heard from several people that our Superintendent is moving the district in the right direction but, to put it mildly, Nick Fischer is not a people person. Cold, aloof, arrogant are all words that have been used to describe him, and I’ve seen enough of the man to know those words certainly fit, at least some of the time. For a guy who was brought in to fix the school system the first task should be to let the people who work for you know that they are part of the solution, instead it seems many who work for the school system feel that they are treated as part of the problem. Morale is hugely important and Dr. Fischer fails to connect with his employees. There have been lots of complaints that the school department is too top heavy and that should be examined. Dr. Fischer should have to justify where he is spending our money. (The school committee should also be comparing our structure and pay scale to similar communities.) Why have we spent so much on consultants? How did we end up short funding last year’s transportation budget? Certainly Dr. Fischer should be held accountable, but so should everyone else.