Originally published for the Sun Chronicle on Feb. 22, 2016.
Although he says Attleboro schools face “disappointing” state funding, incoming Superintendent David Sawyer is confident the district will press ahead when he takes over the top job in July.
“The budget forecast for this year is not good,” he said. “But we can’t let it be an excuse.
“You can still move forward, even when the wind is blowing against you. You just need to have the right technique, and that’s part of what the strategic plan does.”
Sawyer, who has served as assistant superintendent of schools the past four years, was unanimously chosen by the school committee to succeed Kenneth Sheehan after the superintendent announced last year that he would retire.
This will be Sawyer’s first time leading the district in balancing the school budget.
Factored into that task will be the school committee’s five-year strategic plan, approved last October, which includes personalized learning plans for all students, an increased use of technology in the classroom and more hands-on experiences by way of increased internships and field trips.
Sawyer said another key goal of “Envisioning 2020” is to cultivate stronger relationships with the Attleboro community as a whole.
But funding is scarce, Sawyer said, and over the past few years the district has cut programs and personnel in the face of rising costs.
Under Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed budget, Attleboro schools would receive $35.411 million in state education aid. The proposal is about a half-percent more than last year’s allocation of $35.242 million.
Across Massachusetts, direct state aid would increase by 1.6 percent over last year.
Education advocates say the increase is too modest.
The district will also receive funding through the city when Mayor Kevin Dumas releases his budget later this year.
Last year, school officials requested at least another $1 million more than the city budget allowed, and were forced to cut nine teachers and school aides and eliminate a number of unfilled positions to close the deficit.
Sheehan said Sawyer will face some challenges ahead as he works to find a solution to the budget.
“Going into this year, alone, we know that in order to provide just level services to our kids we’re anywhere between $3.8 million and $4 million short of that goal,” Sheehan said. “So, how are we going to cut that kind of money?”
Sheehan said the district’s strategic plan is a good foundation to allocate money toward developing and maintaining projects long-term.
But, he added, balancing budgets means weighing programs one against the other to decide where the district can cut.
“The tough decision is weighing the essential piece of developing a new program, while you’re cutting other programs,” he said. “If you don’t do that, the system doesn’t progress. It’s just stagnant.
“This is a very dangerous game in which you weigh every decision based on money, which has a negative or positive impact on children.”
Sheehan said that while school officials set lofty goals and initiatives intended to better their district, they have no control over the finances that come into play. He encouraged city and state officials to rethink the budgeting process.
“At the end of the day, cutting $4 million from this budget without question is going to have a negative impact on children,” he said.
Sawyer said he is working with the school committee and hopes to gain community support for additional state and local funds.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the state’s stance on funding schools right now really pits schools against the local government,” Sawyer said. “The school system doesn’t want to fall into that trap, and I know that the city doesn’t either, because the problem here is that the state is negligent in its support of education.”
“I think it’s irresponsible. We can’t possibly operate with those kinds of numbers. We need people to understand what we’re up against.”
Sawyer said that while the district will work to find solutions with as minimal an impact as possible to students, ultimately every program or personnel cut will have a negative affect on the district.
“That’s the sad part of the story,” he said.
School Committee Chairman Stephen Withers Jr. said the committee is confident in Sawyer’s ability to lead the district and improve Attleboro schools.
“(The budget) can’t and won’t change our goals,” Withers said. “We have to remain focused on accomplishing what we believe is best for the district, and I’m confident that Mr. Sawyer feels the same way.”
Sheehan echoed that, and said he would be available to help Sawyer balance his first budget before retiring at the end of June.
“No superintendency is easy,” Sheehan said. “But, I think there are more pluses for Mr. Sawyer. He’s a hard worker and he truly believes in the Attleboro Public Schools. And he knows he can always call me.”