In budget cut aftermath, Concord School Board takes — and dishes — criticism

Concord school board members discuss the budget at a meeting last week.

Concord school board members discuss the budget at a meeting last week. Catherine McLaughlin / Monitor staff

By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN

Monitor staff

Published: 04-02-2024 5:31 PM

Modified: 04-02-2024 11:09 PM


Five Concord elementary school teachers were told last week they’d lose their positions at the end of this year.

While the district budget approved by the Concord School Board for next year did not include outright teacher layoffs, the board knew these notifications would be necessary.

Yet, the way the teachers learned about their futures drew reproof from Vice President Brenda Hastings — a former third-grade teacher who spent more than two decades in Concord schools.

“Who made the decision to do it Friday morning? Because it was a very poor decision,” Hastings said. “I just can’t imagine asking somebody to do that, and then having to go teach for the rest of the day.”

Monday’s meeting was the school board’s first since approving the 2025 budget last week. While pressing criticisms about how those cuts were handled, board members also fielded conflicting feedback about how they navigated around two potential, and always unpopular, budget outcomes — cuts to valued programs and personnel or higher tax hikes. With pleas from some to add positions back into the budget and praise from others for their fiscal responsibility, board members did not vocalize any intent to double back.

To ameliorate learning loss, the district previously used federal pandemic grants to fund math coaches — meant to work with teachers to hone their skills. When the federal funding sunsetted last year, the board decided to continue five of them with district money under one-year contracts as a one-year off-ramp.

The coaches were Concord teachers pivoting to that role, and to replace them the district hired new teachers. With the board allowing the math coach positions to expire this year, the coaches will pivot back to classroom instruction, taking seniority over first-year teachers.

“Right now, one-year contract teachers have the same rights as continuing contracts with the new language we bargained,” Michael Macri, president of the teacher’s union in Concord and a teacher at Broken Ground School, said of the seniority process. “It’s by date of hire; that’s the only variable.” Before the board approved the budget last week, Macri emphasized that this contractual seniority structure would mean that some first-year teachers would get bumped out of their positions.

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Superintendent Kathleen Murphy has emphasized that those teachers will have the chance to apply for other openings in Concord.

Hastings’ criticism, though, was focused on when those teachers learned they would lose their positions.

“We had some positions that, they were of equal: they were nominated on the same day, they were elected by you on the same day. So they were they were absolutely the same,” Murphy explained to the school board. In those scenarios, the union’s determination for breaking that tie is by a lottery. The district and the union worked together on the decision, according to comments from Murphy and Macri, who added that, because “a lot of teachers knew what was coming,” building administrators preferred not to delay.

Lots were drawn last Friday morning before classes began.

“It was reported that Friday was a very difficult day for our staff,” Hastings said. “That was not a good choice. I hope we’ve learned from it.”

The board opted in the new budget to leave four retirement vacancies at the primary level unfilled at the end of this year instead of the single reduction originally proposed.

With the young student class numbers receding, further reductions could be made without straying from the target class size range in district policy. And with four teacher retirements, seeking to avoid outright lay-offs, the board opted to expand the reductions to four teachers. Several members expressed a goal of keeping the tax rate increase below 3%: more elementary reductions was one of several trims the board made to make way for more school nurse support and world language growth while still meeting that goal.

Echoing concerns some board members and the teacher’s union noted during the budget process, Mill Brook parents Heather and Adam Dodge said they felt that the needs of Mill Brook students — from their daughter to a classmate learning English as a second language — superseded a target number in a district policy.

Heather Dodge told the board she wants her daughter Grace to do more than get by in school — she wants her to do great. The drop in elementary school teaching positions and corresponding higher class sizes next year could stand in the way of that, she said.

“Grace will do well in any class with any teacher,” Dodge said, reading a note from Grace’s teacher at Mill Brook about how changes to the teacher-student ratio could affect their child. “However, she will not do great. She will not be able to go above her grade level.”

With learning loss and behavioral challenge fallout from the pandemic, several board members worried while budgeting that, regardless of the class size policy, inching up class sizes would multiply strains on teachers and, as a result, asked a board committee to review the policy and make sure it remained relevant to a post-pandemic landscape.

The Dodges asked the board to reconsider the reductions in the budget.

“You guys still have the opportunity to go back and fix this,” Adam Dodge said.

The reductions were a divisive call on the board — several members wanted a more gradual drop — but the budget as a whole was approved 8-1. Because the budget has already been voted on, it takes a supermajority to make changes.

Minutes earlier, the board had been praised for making those cuts.

“You did a super job,” Betty Hoadley, a former longtime board member and teacher, said of the board’s work to cost-cap. “You took on very, very difficult things, and you came out with a number that was most acceptable. Congratulations, and thank you.”