SPRINGFIELD — When asked what schools need the most, parents and educators pretty much unanimously agreed their priority is more staff helping children.
Specifically, they want more classroom teachers, counselors, teacher assistants, special education and English language specialists, and educators who teach the arts.
But in Springfield most of their requests will likely go unfunded next year despite the newly adopted Student Opportunity Act, which boosts school funding statewide by $1.5 billion over the next seven years.
Springfield officials were expecting to receive an additional $20 million to $30 million to fund the district, which has about 25,000 students and 58 schools. But officials learned recently that funding may only increase by about $3 million in the upcoming year, Superintendent Daniel Warwick said. That’s compared to a roughly $500 million district budget.
The law, which was signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in November, was intended to help poor communities by lowering the family income threshold so more children are identified as poor. Schools receive extra money for every child considered high-needs, which includes those who live in low-income homes.
But Springfield did not receive much of a boost with the change in the formula. That’s because most of the children who are high-needs were already counted under the older formula, Warwick said. Springfield has the second-highest percentage of poor students in the state.
“We are fighting this,” said Maureen Colgan Posner, president of the Springfield Education Association. “Our feeling is that the Student Opportunity Act passed unanimously and they can fix this.”
She said it is disappointing that the communities the law was created to assist — those with large numbers of minority, disabled and non-English-speaking students — are being shortchanged.
State Sen. James Welch, D-West Springfield, said school funding proposals in Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget benefit suburban schools more than districts that have high needs and high poverty.
While Springfield is the largest school system in his district, Welch said he does not see much of a boost for Chicopee and West Springfield students either.
But Welch said the governor’s budget is just a proposal. The House will submit its budget around April and the Senate will turn in its own version of the budget around May. The two legislative budgets must then be reconciled and signed by Baker.
“I think the main reason legislators supported this was to help close the funding gap, which will hopefully close the achievement gap,” Welch said. “(Baker’s) recommendation is not true to that commitment.”
School districts will be required to develop plans for how they will spend their increased funding in order to close gaps in academic performance between wealthy and poor students, students of different races, and among students who are learning English or have disabilities. The categories are broad and include things such as funding preschool, preparing high school students for future success and meeting social-emotional needs of children.
In Springfield, parents, educators and other staff are meeting at each school to discuss their priorities. They will submit itemized lists to administrators as they begin preparing the budget for next year. If Springfield receives more money, officials will simply use the priority list to fund more things, Warwick said.
Warwick said he was happy to see more than 75 parents, educators and residents at one recent forum at the Rebecca Johnson School. There, participants split into small groups and discussed their priorities. Later they announced their results to the entire group and submitted them in writing.
“We want more staff. Class sizes are way too large,” said Sara Berliner, who teaches theater arts to all three grades at M. Marcus Kiley School.
Members of that group agreed the schools need more staff who directly interact with students every day, including classroom teachers, educators who specialize in teaching children with disabilities and those who do not speak English, teaching assistants, counselors, and bus monitors, said Martha Pratt, a first-grade teacher at the German Gerena Community School.
A second group determined the schools desperately need more counselors to help children who face social and emotional problems.
“The numbers of children that counselors have to service is huge, in some cases 100 to one,” said Marguerite Foster Franklin, a longtime kindergarten teacher at Sumner Avenue School.
Those counselors have many roles including writing specialized education plans, dealing with day-to-day problems and also stepping in every time there is a crisis with a child, she said.
After listening to the groups, Colgan Posner said the requests from parents and teachers are pretty similar.
“No matter who you talk to the priority is the same,” she said. “They all want more services for their kids and teachers in the classroom.”
Zulma Rivera, who has a daughter in Springfield Public Schools and brought other parents to the meeting through her job with the community group Neighbor to Neighbor, said people had a lot of issues they wanted to discuss.
“Are teachers getting the support they need to teach children who come from different backgrounds and have different needs?” she asked.
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