School Committee addresses community questions regarding layoffs

School+Committee+member+David+Pearlman%2C+Vice-Chair+Suzanne+Federspiel%2C+and+moderator+Meghna+Chakrabarti+field+community+questions+during+the+School+Committee+open+forum+on+Sunday%2C+May+31.+

JEREMIAH LEVY/SAGAMORE STAFF

School Committee member David Pearlman, Vice-Chair Suzanne Federspiel, and moderator Meghna Chakrabarti field community questions during the School Committee open forum on Sunday, May 31.

Over 1,000 attendees tuned in to a virtual meeting with members of the Brookline School Committee (BSC) at 7 p.m. on May 31. Vice-Chair Suzanne Federspiel, BSC member David Pearlman and State Representative Tommy Vitolo took the opportunity to explain the BSC’s motivation behind the recent layoffs of 300 Brookline educators.
The evening’s forum was hosted by the Brookline Parent Organization (BPO), a group of parents dedicated to advocating for education and initiatives deemed important to the community. Brookline parent and WBUR reporter Meghna Chakrabarti moderated the session, while viewers submitted questions over Zoom for Vitolo, Pearlman and Federspiel.
All pre-professional teachers, as well as all educators in the Performing Arts, Career and Technical Education (CTE), Brookline Early Education Program (BEEP) and Health and Fitness departments were issued reduction-in-force notices (RIFs, or pink slips) on May 29. All teachers who have received RIFs will no longer be employed by the Brookline Public Schools (BPS) beginning June 23.
Federspiel began the meeting by explaining that the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the town’s revenue by 29 percent, prompting discussions about major personnel cuts. The BSC learned of the BPS’s $6.3 million deficit on May 15. As the current Brookline Educators Union (BEU) contract stipulates that teachers must be given layoff notices by May 30, the BSC decided to make widespread cuts to allow for maximum flexibility.
However, according to Pearlman, the BSC is confident that every department in the BPS will be at least partially staffed in the fall.
“Slips were sent, sometimes to everyone within a certain discipline, but we have every intention of making sure that, by fall, each of these departments are staffed to some level. We don’t know what that level is going to be. We don’t know what, exactly, education is going to look like,” Pearlman said. “But, for example, we can say that BEEP will absolutely be open in the fall. Just because we’ve cast a broader net with RIFs doesn’t mean people won’t be coming back.”
Federspiel noted how, in past years, teachers have been issued layoff notices as a way of granting flexibility for the school district. Pearlman and Federspiel reiterated that their goal is not to permanently terminate 300 Brookline educators, but rather to facilitate the BSC’s planning for when school reopens in September.
“We need as much flexibility as possible,” Federspiel said. “If school is either remote or a hybrid, it’s possible that we may make some changes in assignments. But people need to know that our goal is to bring people back.”

Just because we’ve cast a broader net with RIFs doesn’t mean people won’t be coming back.”

— School Committee member David Pearlman

Pearlman and Federspiel explained that more budgeting decisions will be made within the next few weeks, and that additional cuts to central administration are on the table. Pearlman revealed that there has already been an affirmative vote to eliminate some positions in the central office.
As for whether children of those laid-off will be able to remain in the BPS system if they do not reside in Brookline, Pearlman and Federspiel said that the BSC has not arrived at a definitive response. However, Pearlman said that he personally is committed to school stability for children and that he will advocate in favor of the children of pink-slipped teachers.
Vitolo explained how the budget shortfall has been especially difficult for Brookline, as a large fraction of the town’s revenue is generated by parking meters, hotels, restaurants and retail marijuana taxes. Vitolo said that these funds have “virtually disappeared,” which poses a large problem for Brookline.
Additionally, although the town has a $26 million reserve fund, Vitolo said that this money cannot be used to allay the budget crisis unless the Town Meeting votes to approve it. And although Brookline residents can vote to increase their income taxes, thereby increasing the town’s revenue, that referendum would take place on September 1––days before schools are slated to reopen.
Because state statute outlaws deficit spending, the BSC has had to act drastically in order to balance the budget. Pearlman and Federspiel acknowledged that the BSC’s rocky relationship with the BEU has exacerbated the already difficult situation.
“If the trust had been there all along, if we had a solid working relationship, this would not be quite as painful. Because we could say, ‘we can weather this together.’ Now, we are asking people to commit to this together,” Federspiel said.
Pearlman concurred, noting that he views the BEU as a partner. He also believes in open and honest communication, as it will improve transparency in the future.
When the moderator asked Federspiel about the distress that the community has been feeling, Federspiel acknowledged the pain and uncertainty that pink-slipped teachers have been facing in the preceding days. She strove to offer words of consolation and sympathy.
“I’m sorry for the stress and pain and anxiety that this has created. I just ask people to take a deep breath––there’s no reason for them to trust me, but I will do my very best to make this work,” Federspiel said. “If {a teacher’s} job is temporarily suspended, we will look at other positions for them. There is not anybody we want to lose. This is not a way to weed out people, or to make them uncomfortable so they want to leave. Our goal is to work together so we can do the very best for our children.”