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Brookline schools planning layoffs, cutting world language classes for K-5 students

The Baker School in Brookline. Photo courtesy of Baker School Extended Day.
March 15, 2024

Facing a $2.44 million budget deficit, Brookline’s school district is planning to cut all or a significant portion of its world language program for kindergarten through fifth grade next year and is weighing laying off approximately 20 employees.

The cuts come as district-wide expenses are outpacing the town’s revenue, driven in part by inflation-related surges in the costs of staff benefits, private special education programs, utilities, and transportation for students. School districts across the state are facing similar economic constraints, the Boston Globe has reported.

“We cannot address our financial challenges without impacting staff,” Superintendent Linus Guillory said at a School Committee meeting on Thursday, at which he and other district officials made recommendations to the committee for which programs to slash.

In addition to eliminating up to 12.6 full-time world language teaching positions, the district is also considering cutting four elementary school literacy coaches, four education technology specialists, and an undetermined position at the high school, administrators said.

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District administrators presented School Committee members on Thursday with $3 million in options for potential cuts. The committee must choose cuts that total $2.44 million to reach a budget allocation of $136.4 million ahead of a March 28 vote on the budget. The $3 million in proposed cuts would amount to the reduction of the equivalent of 23.1 full-time positions.

The kindergarten through fifth grade world language program was by far the largest proposed cut at $1.08 million. The program, which launched in 2008 following a town override, has been celebrated as one of the district’s strengths, but has also faced questions about its effectiveness and has struggled to retain teachers.

An external review of the K-8 world language program conducted last year found that by eighth grade, students who started Spanish in sixth grade were nearly as likely as those who had started in kindergarten to score “intermediate” in an assessment of their listening and speaking skills.

Jodi Fortuna, the deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, said district leaders would have recommended the elimination of the K-5 world language program regardless of the current financial constraints in order to devote more time to other subjects.

“Of course we value world language, . . . but to me it’s not worth having a program in the lower grades if we can’t do it well,” School Committee Chair David Pearlman said. “I know we’re having it as a discussion in the context of our budgetary gap, but I think this is something we were going to likely move to anyway.”

Other School Committee members said they want to consider retaining some portion of the kindergarten through fifth-grade program or increasing the sixth-grade language classes from three to five days per week.

An earlier proposal to consolidate small class sections in some elementary schools was nixed because projected enrollments had shifted since an earlier enrollment report was undertaken, according to Susan Givens, the deputy superintendent for administration and finance.

For employees whose jobs may be eliminated, news of the looming layoffs arrived in an email from Guillory Thursday afternoon.

Jenny Murphy, who has been an educational technology teacher at the Runkle School for 17 years, said she was “completely disgusted” by what she felt was an inaccurate and devaluing description of her job. Murphy said she meets with students in second through sixth grade weekly and bristled at the notion that her job is “tech support”.

“Our role has been even more integral to education now since COVID. And now what’s coming up is AI,” Murphy said. “This is going to be bad.”

The district has proposed cutting half the education technology specialists at the eight elementary schools and assigning each remaining teacher to two schools.

Brookline Educators Union President Justin Brown also criticized the cuts.

“We’re stunned and outraged and feel at a basic level that the School Committee is not advocating hard enough for a fully-funded school system,” said Brown, who described the situation as a “manufactured financial crisis.”

Brown is urging the School Committee to push the Select Board to tap into a portion of the town’s $25 million in surplus funds, which the state’s Department of Revenue directs towns to spend on one-time expenses and capital projects.

Mariah Nobrega, the chair of the School Committee’s finance subcommittee, said that the committee has not considered tapping into the town’s surplus, and argued that doing so would be unsustainable.