WESTERLY — A new assistant principal position at Westerly Middle School was the only staffing addition Thursday as the School Committee reviewed proposed budgets for that school as well as for the district's three elementary schools.
The review was part of the committee's second workshop on the proposed 2019-20 budget.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said the need for the second assistant principal position at the middle school has been acutely felt while Principal Paula Fusco and Assistant Principal Stuart List have both been out on medical absences for significant parts of the current school year.
The middle school had two assistant principals until this year, when Garceau transferred Kevin Cronin to become assistant principal at Westerly High School. Previously, the School Committee, to accommodate the Town Council, had eliminated the position from the current budget. Garceau said that eliminating the high school job, shortly before his arrival in the district in July 2017, had been a "shortsighted" decision.
"Last year we had a very difficult year at the high school for a number of reasons but one of the things I felt very strongly about was that the previous decision was shortsighted and that at a high school, with an open campus and two buildings and with the security and safety concerns that we have, and with the absolute need we have to improve opportunities for the kids, we were short-handed at the high school," Garceau said.
With Fusco and List out, Graceau said a retired principal from Warwick and teachers at the middle school have been paid to fill some of the gaps. Garceau has also functioned as principal at the school at times. "Now we are in the position where I feel we are short-handed at the middle school and that has only been made more evident by the fact that ... we have two people out on medical leave," Garceau said.
Garceau will seek $140,000 in the new budget to cover the salary and benefits for a new assistant principal at the school. The position will help address concerns in the community about possible discipline and bullying problems at the middle school, he said.
If the proposed elementary school redesign project, which would move fifth-grade students out of the middle school and into a new State Street School building, is approved, Garceau said he anticipated moving an administrator to the new school.
School Committee members asked whether the middle school would continue to employ two deans if an additional assistant principal is brought in. The two dean positions are required under the district's contract with the teachers union. "Whether we have to fill both of those would be up to the union," Garceau said.
Committee member Christine Cooke said she anticipated residents asking her "why, with declining enrollment, we're adding an administrator." Garceau responded by noting that the number of teacher leadership positions, such as the deans, was reduced in the new teachers contract and the stipends for the positions were reduced to a maximum of $1,600. The stipends were previously in the range of $4,000 to $5,900 per year.
During the committee's first budget workshop on Jan. 5, Garceau addressed the notion that the district's staff is growing despite decreases in student enrollment. "It doesn't have any bit of truth to it," he said.
As evidence, Garceau pointed to the following reductions that were made before the start of the current fiscal year: 0.75 parent academy coordinator; 0.50 library specialist; one bus driver, one bus monitor, one custodian, 0.6 social worker, 0.10 special education teacher, a Westerly High School math teacher, a Grade 3 teacher at Dunn's Corners Elementary School (a fourth-grade teacher was added at the school), a kindergarten teacher at State Street School, first grade teacher at Springbrook School, a 0.8 technician in the district's technical education program, a data analyst, a full-time position in technical education, and a full-time position at the Tower Street School Community Center.
"All of these positions were eliminated last year," the superintendent said. He said the district was "trying to be as lean and fiscally responsible as we can and ... meet the needs of our kids and address declining enrollments. So when people say that the numbers keep going down but the staffing doesn't, it's just not accurate," Garceau said.
There were also several additions in the current budget: finance business assistant, Westerly High School medical pathways teacher, and transportation dispatcher.