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School Committee votes to eliminate world language classes for K-5 students, cut literacy coaches

A hallway at the Pierce School. Photo by Clare Ong
March 29, 2024

The School Committee voted on Thursday night to eliminate world language classes for students in kindergarten through grade five and to cut all four elementary school literacy coach positions. The budget, if approved by Town Meeting in May, could result in at least 18 educators losing their jobs, according to estimates by school officials.

The votes to trim about $2 million from the school department’s original $138.6 million budget proposal came after an emotional meeting during which committee members wrestled with the decision for hours. They bounced possible alternatives off each other and school district officials before concluding there was no way to put forth a balanced budget without making significant cuts.

Although voters last year approved an override that raised property taxes to provide additional funds for town and school operations, school officials said unexpected cost increases necessitated the cutbacks.

“I frankly don’t want to do any of this. I just want to say that out loud. This is not a good moment for any of us. We don’t want to do these things,” said School Committee member Mariah Nobrega.

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The biggest cut came in the 5-4 vote to eliminate the K-5 world languages program, with 12.6 teaching positions, which would save the district a little more than $1 million. World language classes for middle school students would remain in place.

The K-5 world languages program, which launched in 2008 following a town override, includes Spanish and Chinese classes. It has been celebrated as a model for other districts, but has also faced questions about its effectiveness and has struggled to retain teachers.

Teachers, parents and students, including a group of Driscoll School fourth graders and their teacher, urged the committee to maintain world languages for younger students.

Shenandoah Paun, a K-3 Spanish Teacher at the Runkle School, said that she believes the program is effective.

“Anyone who says that the K-5 program is ineffective probably hasn’t taken the time to compare what our sixth grade or our eighth grade or our 12th grade is doing compared to what students in other districts without that K-5 boost are doing,” she said.

School Committee members Steven Ehrenberg, Suzanne Federspiel, Andy Liu, Helen Charlupski and Valerie Frias voted yes on reducing the world language program. Natalia Linos, Mariah Nobrega, Sarah Moghtader and David Pearlman voted no.

Literacy coaches also up for elimination

The School Committee also voted 8-1 to cut four elementary school literacy coach positions, which would eliminate the district’s entire coaching team. Frias was the lone “no” vote.

The coaches help co-teach and mentor teachers about best practices for literacy instruction, and often work in several classrooms a day, teachers at the meeting told the school board.

“Our schools are full of kids who struggle with reading, despite superior instruction, despite superior materials, which we have a lot of. So in this poorly-imagined future that’s being cooked up, the biggest losers are going to be the students who need literacy intervention,” said Christin Wheeler, a literacy coach at the Hayes School.

Two of those cuts are expected to be achieved through attrition, rather than layoffs, as coaches retire or otherwise leave the system, School Committee members said.

The committee also voted unanimously to cut 1.5 positions in the district’s Office of Teaching and Learning.

The committee considered giving several budget options to Town Meeting, and having its 255 members vote on the specifics of the difficult choices at its next meeting in May, but ultimately decided that would lead to too much uncertainty and take control out of the hands of the committee and school leaders. Instead, Town Meeting will take up the specific budget proposed by the Committee.

“We made a valiant effort to try to find potential alternatives and found that none of them are particularly workable, unfortunately,” said Pearlman, the committee chair.

The committee also voted 5-1, with three abstentions, to maintain four jobs for education technology specialists which had been up for possible elimination. Pearlman was the no vote, and Linos, Federspiel and Frias abstained.

In recent weeks, the Brookline Educators Union has criticized the plan to make cuts and urged town and school leaders to look elsewhere for funds, including by dipping into the town’s reserves.

Root causes

Susan Givens, the school district’s deputy superintendent for administration and finance, cited rising utility and transportation costs as some of the unexpected increases that were not factored into the override.

“When you’re preparing a budget or forecast, there are always assumptions that you make. Sometimes things crop up that weren’t anticipated during the planning process,” she said.

School Committee member Ehrenberg echoed Givens.

“The main drivers of the budget gap are due to structural factors outside of the district’s control,” Ehrenberg said. “They’re obligations that we have to fulfill that were not projected at the time of the override.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that K-5 language classes in Brookline include French instruction. In fact, the only languages offered are Spanish and Chinese.