It’s Budget Time, Pass the Tums

Brookline Tab, March 23, 2006

After stepping down from nearly five years on the School Committee, I truly believed I was moving on from local politics. No more late-night meetings, anguish over contract negotiations, struggles over school system priorities. Time for turning my attention and energy to my boys, my husband and my book. Ride off into the sunset, and relax.

And then along came the school budget.

The first pin prick hit me when a fellow school parent called me to talk about the cuts to performing arts — two positions overall. I thought not about my middle son Max, who had had piano lessons in addition to trumpet lessons at school, but about kids I knew who could not afford Brookline Music School’s hefty piano lesson fee, and so their only hope of learning a musical instrument was through Brookline schools. I remembered how I had learned violin in my elementary school, and had had my moment in the sun playing the “Love Theme from The Godfather” in front of my school in fifth grade.

Then I had coffee with one of my best friends, who told me about a little girl at her school (Devotion) who had broken her leg and had to scoot up to class every day on her rear end (two flights) because there was no ramp for her. We both agreed how ridiculous a state of affairs this was, and how there was little relief in sight because the renovation of Devotion is farther down in priority on the Capital Improvement Plan than the health department and Town Hall. We could not understand how a building as old as Devotion, with rodent and ADA compliance problems, could be considered such a low priority in a town that professes to have the best schools anywhere.

She also told me how anxious she and other parents were getting about the reductions in math and literacy specialist coordinators. I was irked to hear about these because of the strong commitment to math and literacy that school administrators had demonstrated just last year.

And then my autism moms support group sent me an e-mail about the new behavioral specialist being hired. A half-time staff position for seven of the eight elementaries, kindergarten to eighth grade. I had to stop and do the math before I could respond. That would be 20 hours a week for something like 60 kids. Around 20 minutes per kid? To observe, consult and train multichallenged children for the highly demanding Brookline classrooms? Our autistic preschoolers get far better than 20 minutes a week; why would that need change as a child enters kindergarten, or progresses to upper grades that are even more demanding academically, behaviorally and socially?

The old familiar school-budget ache in my stomach was back. There would be no escaping such pain. It’s just too important. Naturally this autism issue spoke loudest to me, because my autistic son has almost never had the chance to attend Brookline schools because there have never been strong enough behavioral supports here for him.

But this is about more than the autism specialists, or lack thereof. The problem here is bigger than the performing arts cuts, the literacy reductions, the reduction in seventh- and eighth-grade teachers, the two positions lost at the high school, and the increase in middle school and high school athletic fees. It is more than Devotion’s physical condition; Runkle ain’t so hot, either. We have a big increase in incoming kindergarteners which will call for more staff added, and there’s not much extra space at any of our schools.

Then there’s the fact that we still don’t have a kindergarten-to-grade six World Language Program, or that we still do not have the vocational education our kids need — all of our kids, even college-bound kids — to succeed beyond high school. Or that even with a small staff increase this year, we still have a very inconsistent gifted and talented program. Or that we only have two social workers for nine grades at eight elementaries. Or that we are going into a contract year and I’ll bet we don’t have the money to give our teachers the raises they truly deserve.

The problem is that our school budget needs to be bigger, not reduced. It’s been 12 years since the last override of Proposition 2½. The town is studying the possibility of Community Preservation Act funds. And not a moment too soon.

Maybe we’re not as bad off as, say, Springfield. It’s only half a million in cuts — this year. But it’s really much more than that, if you think about all the cuts in the last four years as well as all the important things we can’t even consider doing now.

We say we want Brookline to be the best school system anywhere. But do we mean it?