School committee discusses hybrid student experiences and potential budget cuts



The Brookline School Committee (BSC) convened virtually via Zoom on Feb. 4 to discuss student and family experiences during the in-person days and potential budget cuts for the 2022 fiscal year.

Link to recording of Brookline School Committee Meeting via Brookline Interactive Group (BIG):

The Brookline School Committee (BSC) met to discuss student and family experiences and the impact of a budget deficit for the 2021 fiscal year via Zoom on Feb. 4 at 6 p.m.

Interim Superintendent Dr. James Marini said that he would prioritize in-person education.

“In my visits to the schools I continue to see great stuff going on in the classroom,” Marini said. “The kids are great, and the teaching was exciting, and I think I should say that because there’s lots of good stuff happening when the kids are in person.”

Marini announced that first graders will be returning to a full-time in-person education.

“We can return first grade students to full-time instruction on Mar. 1 of this year. We do not have to adjust the social distancing at that point, nor do we preclude the return of other grades by making these adjustments,” Marini said. “This is the first step, to bring the first grade in, and we will also have to monitor that to make certain that by having all those first grade students in we don’t see a change in the testing that we’ve been doing.”

Marini said a team is gathering data for a proposal to the Brookline Educators Union (BEU) around where to go from here.

“We can work together to achieve what I think is a common goal: to get as many students back to in-person instruction as we can, as safely as we can, as soon as we can,” Marini said. “It is a challenge but it is a challenge that we’re willing to take on, and we will do it in a clear and deliberate way.”

Marini saidthat he signed onto a letter to Governor Charlie Baker pushing for teachers to be vaccinated as soon as possible.

BSC Member Helen Charlupski asked if first graders will be in their school buildings fully in-person for five days a week, and Marini confirmed they would.

Finance Subcommittee Chair Susan Wolf Ditkoff lauded town efforts to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and said that rounds of surveillance testing of school staff found only two positive cases out of 1,300 tests, a test positivity rate of 0.15 percent.

After Public Comment came Budget Updates for the 2021 fiscal year as well as the 2022 fiscal year as they relate to the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB). Deputy Superintendent for Administration and Finance Mary Ellen Norman shared an update with the BSC.

“We had a shift of approximately $2,791,000 in revenue,” Norman said. “One major piece shifted that, which has been the announcement of the governor’s budget and an increase of the Chapter 70 state aid.”

This was a marked shift from the previous BSC meeting on Jan. 21, when there was a projected deficit of over $8 million. That total deficit is now down to just over $5 million, with the overall budget projected at nearly $127 million for the 2022 fiscal year.

Marini asked Assistant Head of School Hal Mason to provide an overview regarding how impending budget cuts will impact the high school. Mason said we’ll need to know more about enrollment before fully understanding the impact of potential cuts.

“Once we get a better handle on what the enrollment for next year will be, then we can start looking at what the impact will be of any cuts,” Mason said. “We are growing, so as we start adding in 50, 60, 100 more kids, which would be a 5 percent rise, in a typical year that would mean that we would increase staff to meet that demand, just to be able to keep the same ratios of student to teacher.”

Later, Marini stated the realities of the budget as they apply to the high school.

“The reality is you’re going to lose programs at the high school, assuming the budget stays where it is,” Marini said. “You’re going to narrow your course offerings, and you’re going to increase your class size.”

Advisory Panel member Mariah Norbrega asked Marini if he is anticipating any potential areas to cut in order to balance the budget soon. Marini said that they will have to spend time evaluating the impact on students and will not have it ready by the budget hearing for next week.

In response to Nobrega, Marini committed to a series of budget hearings.

Brookline parent Paige Scott Reed said she was disappointed in the recent decisions made by the BSC and superintendent.

“I can’t even begin to express how dismayed I am that the School Committee and the superintendent didn’t have enough desire to bring back preliterate learners and that you’re still not bringing them back until Mar. 1,” Scott Reed said. “The hybrid model isn’t working. It’s not working for n, it’s not working for students, it’s not working for paraprofessionals and there’s something we can do about it.”

A number of residents expressed regret at their decisions to move to Brookline for the schools. Separately, many criticized the fixation on a six-foot distancing requirement, arguing that there is no hard science behind that as the standard.

After a series of various subcommittee reports, Marini had last word before the meeting was adjourned.

“This was a really difficult meeting, and it’s going to be very important that we in the school department roll up our sleeves to get to this,” Marini said. “And we will! There’s a lot to think about in terms of what was raised by parents and that level of anxiety is intolerable. So we’re going to have to deal with it. I’m glad this meeting is over. But now the work begins.”

Updated on 2/8/2021.