WINCHESTER — With the school district facing large cuts, three employees have left, in addition to the 23 positions that were already slated to be eliminated.
Two teachers and another certified staff member have resigned due to the uncertainty brought about by the $1.6 million budget cut, which Winchester voters approved in March, Winchester School Board Chairwoman Lindseigh Picard said. Other planned cuts include reducing kindergarten to a half-day and eliminating busing for high school students to Keene.
“There were a number of staff who became very concerned about who might not be renewed, and started looking for teaching positions, and ultimately left because they felt kind of unsupported in that significant reduction,” Picard said Thursday.
The 23 jobs that will be cut for the next school year include a special-education teacher, an integration specialist, a crossing guard, a part-time Medicaid billing clerk, one full-time and one part-time custodian, nine paraprofessionals and eight other certified teachers, which includes a half-day foreign language teacher.
“The school board, and the administration, was very clear from the beginning that these budget cuts were not a scare tactic, and that these were real, actual things that would be happening,” Picard said.
The Winchester district has one school, Winchester Elementary, which students attend through 8th grade. High school students in the district attend Keene High School.
The school board initially proposed a $12,840,830 budget. At the Feb. 6 deliberative session, Winchester resident Tyke Frazier presented an amendment to lower the budget to $11,270,000, about what it was in the 2017-18 fiscal year.
He argued the budget should be the same as it was three years ago, due to the lack of improvement in the district’s educational rankings since then. He also expressed concern about the proposed budget’s impact on the town’s tax rates.
Frazier’s amendment passed at the deliberative session, and in March, Winchester voters approved the smaller budget by a margin of 614-471. If voters had rejected the budget, a default budget of $12,770,574 would have taken effect.
School board members unanimously disapproved of the cut, but a number of residents at the deliberative session said the school board’s proposal could hurt people on fixed incomes.
“We’ve got a lot of people in our community who live paycheck to paycheck, and unfortunately the reason these hard choices had to be made was simply because they had no choice,” Chester Lapointe, chairman of the Winchester Budget Committee, said in a phone interview Friday.
“Nobody wants to cut positions,” he continued. “Nobody wants to dramatically alter the landscape of a child’s education insofar as it applies to kindergarten or busing for high school students. But the decision made by the populace in Winchester should not be underrated. This was a decision made by the voters, supported by a majority of the voters, and it was done so out of self-preservation.”
Lapointe added that neither the budget that voters approved, nor the plan the school board had proposed, came from the budget committee. He supported the budget that ultimately passed “because it was sound fiscal policy,” he said.
“And it is just fiscal policy that we were using,” Lapointe continued. “There was no agenda, there was no ill will towards the school or anything like that. It was just, we had to save our community.”
Following the budget amendment passing at the deliberative session, school board members “thought very heavily about what those cuts would be,” Picard said. The board identified a list of potential cuts and presented them in advance of the March vote.
“We’re still looking. We are still about $100,000 short from meeting the full $1.6 [million] reduction,” she said. “But we have gut our budget to the core.”
The district is now actively seeking job candidates to replace the three people who resigned, which ultimately will factor into the reduced budget.
“We could have experienced people coming in, and that could have some impact on what we’ve projected,” Picard said. “So it’s a constant conversation, and especially in such a tight budget.”
Lapointe said Friday that the three additional staff members who resigned over the budget cuts made a personal decision.
“And given that the town can only afford so many positions, it seemed prudent that people would look to secure their own fortunes elsewhere, if that became necessary,” he said.
Other cuts taking effect next school year include all of the district’s athletic programs and field trips; stipends that had been proposed for school board members (they don’t have them now); raises for the district’s 19 non-union staff members, such as the principal, vice principal, facilities director and superintendent; funding to cover free breakfast and lunch for all students, in the event that the district doesn’t receive its grant for the program again; and supplies including stationery and technology materials.
“The only thing that’s not captured in those numbers, which should be, is just the toll that something like that takes on a community as a whole,” Picard said Thursday.
“We’ve all been employees — let’s take out the fact that we’re talking about teachers — we’ve all been employees, and gone through various really scary things in our workplace where there’s layoffs or cuts and we’re all left wondering, ‘Am I next? What’s happening?’ ” she continued. “So there’s a general feeling like that, I think, with staff and concerned community members alike.”