Parents question how much elimination of honors program saves schools
Since the decision to eliminate Warwick Schools’ Accelerated Learning Activities Program (ALAP) was made in late July, many parents have questioned reports the School Department saved $325,000 by doing away with the program.
One such parent is Cyndi Smith. All three of Smith’s children have gone through the program, and although she is no longer personally connected to ALAP, Smith still keeps track of it.
“I’m still conscious of it,” said Smith. “I like to see where the money goes as a taxpayer.”
Smith says ALAP renewed her children’s love of school and challenged them. When she heard the program was eliminated, she was upset. She was also confused as to how the School Department could claim they were saving $325,000.
“That was one program that I knew didn’t cost that much,” said Smith, adding that she knew the majority of the cost related to ALAP was paying the salaries of the two full-time and one part-time teacher for the program.
Smith says since those three teachers were retained by the School Department and given positions back in the classroom, the school department cannot claim to be saving their salaries.
She also believes that since eliminating 10 teachers for a savings of $710,000 was listed in the April 23 recommended budget, the school department cannot claim to be saving any additional salaries by eliminating the need for ALAP teachers in July.
“It already showed they took those 10 salaries,” said Smith. “They can’t take those salaries off again.”
Smith decided to gather her own information and contacted the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) to request data on Warwick Schools’ Gifted and Talented expenditures from the Uniform Chart of Accounts. She was able to obtain the data on what it cost the School Department to run gifted and talented programs at all grade levels, including ALAP, for the 2011-2012 school year. The exact breakdown for 2012-2013 from RIDE is not yet available. Smith passed her findings along to the Beacon.
“It’s really interesting,” said Smith. The total cost for gifted and talented was $264,358.95; teachers’ salaries for the elementary level were equal to $261,256.68, or 97 percent of expenses.
The remaining expenses were $2,199.96 for Academic Student Assessment, $446.59 for supplies for high school, junior high school and early education programs and $455.72 for supplies at the elementary level.
Smith argues that since the school department retained the three ALAP teachers and is not saving on salaries, the true savings by cutting ALAP is $2,655.68, the cost of assessments and elementary school supplies.
Patrick Maloney Jr., a former School Committee member and former ALAP PTA president, also questioned $325,000 in savings if ALAP were eliminated. He says teacher salaries would be included in the savings, but not salaries equal to those of the 2.5 ALAP teachers who have been working a number of years.
Maloney says the salary savings would be equal to the salaries of 2.5 new hires or lay-off recalls, whose salaries would be on the lower side of pay scale. He says this because the current ALAP teachers have been moved into the classroom and new teachers would be needed to save the program.
“To save the program, the school department would need to recall three laid-off teachers,” says Maloney. “Those laid off are the newest teachers.”
He estimates that newer teachers earn an average of $60,000 a year. The salaries of two full-time teachers and one part-time teacher at that rate would be about $150,000. As a result, Maloney says the School Department only needs to find an estimated $160,000 (salaries, supplies, testing) to maintain ALAP.
“I consider the ALAP program almost like an honors program [for elementary students],” said Maloney, whose youngest daughter would still be in ALAP if the program returned. “That $160,000 of salaries, benefits and materials is helping almost five percent [of elementary students].”
Anthony Ferrucci, Warwick Schools’ Chief Budget Officer, admits that the description of the savings can be confusing. He explained that doing away with ALAP saved $300,000 in salary and benefits because three teachers have still been pulled from Warwick’s teaching pool.
“Three ALAP teachers, in my scenario, bump out three classroom teachers,” explained Ferrucci. “The pool of teachers did get reduced because that classroom teacher [that was replaced by a former ALAP teacher] is no longer in the system.”
Ferrucci said other costs associated with ALAP included $5,000 for testing and $1,800 for supplies.
The budget officer also explained that there might be confusion as to when the proposal to eliminate ALAP even ended up on the table because it stems from the 40 layoff notices handed out in February.
“That’s why it feels less clear during the process because we have to make a decision in February as to who gets layoff notices before we know the funding for the schools in June,” he said.
Ferrucci also pointed out that the School Committee will not know what positions or teachers are not needed until funding comes through and the final decision is made. An ALAP teacher may have more seniority and be qualified to teach a specific grade, so they are brought back into the classroom as opposed to a teacher with less seniority.
Maloney also questioned School Committee Chairperson Beth Furtado’s comments in a July 23 Beacon article (“Loss of smart kids program questioned”), where she said ALAP only serves half of a percent of the student population in Warwick Schools so she voted against reinstating the program. Maloney says the estimated 300 students in ALAP represent three percent of the 9,500 students.
“If you take the 50 kids on the football team, divide it by 9,500, that is exactly a half of a percent,” said Maloney. “Would Beth advocate getting rid of the football program?”
Maloney does not want to see any program eliminated but understands money is tight. He simply believes that all steps should be taken to ensure the students in ALAP are still given the opportunity to excel. While the School Department has said they have plans to still assist these children, Maloney says he has not heard any “substantial” or “informative” plan to do so.
“[If they reinstate ALAP for this year and] if they work hard over the course of this year to figure out what they really want to do to support theses kids [in place of ALAP], I am sure parents will support it,” said Maloney.
Ferrucci explained that the decision to cut ALAP stems from the need to eliminate teachers and, in a way, the decision to keep a junior high open.
“If we had closed Gorton or Aldrich, we would have been able to lay off junior high grade level teachers [instead of elementary],” explained Ferrucci.
As an example, Ferrucci said had a junior high been eliminated, a junior high science teacher could possibly have been laid off. But because the school was kept open, that science teacher is necessary, so someone else’s position needed to go.
“I can’t cut grade 3, what else is there?” said Ferrucci, paraphrasing things said by members of the School Committee. “If it’s not the junior high, then what?”
Although he is no longer a member of the School Committee, Maloney still regularly attends meetings as a parent and taxpayer. At the last meeting, Maloney says the School Committee made enough cuts to have a surplus of $170,000; he believes that is enough to save ALAP.
“They are required to put that $170,000 somewhere,” said Maloney. “How can they cut this program with a surplus?”
While he believes the School Committee plans to put the funds into optional professional development, Maloney says saving ALAP and enriching these students would be a better use.
Ferrucci did say of the $2.5 million surplus he announced at July’s meeting, the School Committee appropriated $2.4 million for the next school year. He also said a use for some of that has not been determined yet by the School Committee.
“I don’t know what that will be used for yet,” said Ferrucci.
But Ferrucci did give a warning about relying on a surplus.
“We can’t rely on surplus,” he said. “We’ve been doing that for too long…One of these days, it’s not going to be there.”
Even if the surplus is not put towards ALAP, Maloney believes the School Department can get creative and find ways to save money.
For example, Maloney recalled a first day of school a few years ago when each of his three daughters came home with 35 different flyers his wife needed to fill out and return. Maloney says all of these forms could have been put online and submitted digitally. As a member of the School Committee, he decided to find out just how much it costs to send home 35 notices with each student on just the first day of school.
Maloney went to the IT department and discovered that an average toner costs $100 and makes between 10,000 and 12,000 copies and a ream of paper is $5. To provide the entire student body at the time with 35 notices each, 339,500 forms total, Maloney estimated that it would take 29 toner cartridges and 679 reams of paper at a total cost of $6,295 (not including the time it takes the individuals who make the copies). And that is just for the first day of school.
“I was making a real big push to put this information on the website,” said Maloney, who still believes updating the website to allow for paperwork to be digital would provide a great deal of savings. “I’ve been saying for years about updating the website.”
Also, Maloney suggests changes to transportation. He explained that he, and many other parents, drive their children to and from school each day, yet the school is required to have enough buses to accommodate the entire population. While he doesn’t know if it would be allowed, Maloney says if parents said they did not want their child on the bus, the School Department should be able to redo the bus routes to accommodate the most children.
“There should be a way for parents to opt out of transportation, allowing the school to save money on buses,” said Maloney, who pointed out that each bus costs $65,000.
Maloney says he sees buses with the ability to transport 45 kids only carrying 10. If buses only picked up the kids who want or need to use the bus, there could be fewer routes with more students on each bus.
“This is something that could not only save Warwick money but the State of Rhode Island,” said Maloney.
He says if this process could be enacted, the School Department could save ALAP by eliminating three buses, five buses if they truly need $325,000.
Even without his creative ideas, Maloney believes there is a chance to save ALAP for his daughter and her classmates.
“I look at it as there is still a chance for the School Committee to save it,” said Maloney.
The ALAP PTA will be hosting a meeting on Monday night at 6 p.m. at the Warwick Public Library to discuss a plan for the future. Concerned parents, school administrators and School Committee members are invited to attend.