By Rutul Patel
Published: March 2011
“The school budget is famously opaque,” former history department chair Marshall Cohen said.
March 14 marked a pivotal day for the Newton Public Schools (NPS) and their Fiscal Year 2012 (FY12). On that day, Superintendent David Fleishman presented his $171.6 million dollar budget for FY12 and gave to the NPS a budget that, if passed by the School Committee, would include cuts in the Arts, World Language, and Special Education programs, in addition to cutting 30 teaching positions district-wide.
“We may loose our jobs. But it’s the students that are losing out,” art teacher Jeff Wixon said.
Amongst the cuts and confusion is a new “user fee” policy. These new fees are projected to produce $1 million to aid in the budget gap. Upon approval, the user fee would charge students for an activities fee, and increase existing fees for transportation and building use. The current proposed student activities fee is $125.
Increase in fees include: a $200 fee per year for 5th grade music, a new $200 fee for all city bands, choruses and orchestras, a rise from $120 to $160 per sport per season with a $480 cap in athletic fees, a $60 fee for middle school non-athletic activities, an increase in the fee to participate in high school football from $210 to $400, and a new $150 fee to participate in high school plays with a four-play $450 cap per year.
“We recognize the risks in introducing and increasing fees but we believe there is greater risk in curtailing the existing opportunities for our students,” Fleishman said.
Much of the administration agrees with Fleishman’s user fee idea. “They make me uncomfortable but it is hard to disagree with them if the alternative is teacher cuts for lack of funds,” fine and performing arts department head Jeff Knoedler said.
“Fee increases wont be popular, but personally I think that in these tough financial time everybody needs to make sacrifices,” Newton Teachers Association President Mike Zilles said.
“It was somewhat of a painful choice made by the superintendent,” Mayor Setti Warren said. “We have declining revenue and state aide. Newton has to make tough choices and we have to attempt to prioritize and protect the classrooms.”
Before the budget was proposed, Fleishman and Warren spoke to parents and residents of Newton about the possible scenarios. “At a number of our Town Hall discussions we heard that the community would rather have us protect what goes on in the classroom and to keep class sizes as low as possible. They would notmind increasing fees in some areas,” Warren said.
Special Education Chair Ann Walker said, “We will restructure and reschedule, we will still provide the necessary services but in different ways.”
Walker acknowledged that Newton’s reputation for these services went beyond Newton and even Massachusetts. “I just received a phone call from California [about our programs],” Walker said.
Besides increasing fees and removing funds, a major detrimental cut was made to the Arts. The budget specified cuts at the middle school and elementary level in music, band, and art itself. Cuts included: no more elementary school recorder program, no more funding of Art in the elementary schools, and no more middle school Latin.
Cuts to programs include: eliminating Latin in middle schools, eliminating drama for 7 and 8 grades, eliminating the grade 3 recorder program, eliminating grade 4 chorus, and reducing art class time from 60 to 45 minutes.
Zilles sees the cuts as attacks on the arts and foreign language programs as a disconcerting phenomenon. “I think its sad that again we’re going at Arts programs. They are so valuable to our schools. When there’s a cut, we go around the edges. No one wants to increase class sizes. I feels like there’s an undervaluing of the Arts,” he said.
“I have some serious concerns about the quality of education we’re giving South students. If Arts are cut it tells them that having a place to be creative, to take risks, to generate ideas is not as important as say math or history. Its not a wholistic education experience,” Arts teacher Karen Sobin-Jonah said.
Zilles noticed an observable trend in the cuts. Over the last 10 years there have been slow and steady cuts in the NPS budget. Eventually the weight of the cuts piles on to the teachers that have to cover for the positions and programs that were lost.
Other teachers have also noticed this and agree with the faulty policies implemented, “You cannot expect to have a top-notch school system and at the same time chronically undertax. These so-called crises are therefore entirely predictable,” History teacher Brian Muarry said.
“I’ve been to all 22 schools [in our district], and parents, teachers, faculty and students all say we have a great school. It’s great because everyone is working hard. And next year they’ll have to work harder.

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