, Gloucester, MA

May 14, 2013

Pink slips irk city teachers

Non-budget warnings tied to enrollments

By Nancy Gaines

---- — Five Gloucester High School teachers got pink slips late last week in the wake of a budgeting shortfall, prompting some parents and officials to complain the cuts reflected a “cultural” bias.

But the most controversial loss may already be restored.

Announced last Tuesday, Mayor Carolyn Kirk’s $36.4 million proposed outlay for the school’s coming fiscal year was about $1 million — or 3 percent — more than the previous year, but $1.3 million less than the 6 percent hike the School Committee said it needed.

The Friday notifications were necessary to meet a contractual deadline, “to cover our bases,” said School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope.

The proposed budget is now in the hands of the City Council’s subcommittee on Budget and Finance, which could recommend revisions. In addition, Pope has said there might be school money freed up by healthcare savings or employment attrition.

School Superintendent Richard Safier said the reductions were not related to the budget, but to performance or inadequate enrollment in classes. He said more notifications due to “other headaches with the budget” might be forthcoming in situations — for instance, in situations where teaching positions could be combined. He said the contractual deadline for those notices is June 15.

One of the pink slips last week went to Jack Andrews, who teaches the highly regarded woodworking program that constructs an entire house each year.

“There was an enrollment problem,” said Pope, explaining there were two teachers for 21 pupils.

After a Monday afternoon meeting with teacher’s union president Andrea Pretzler – and because enrollment in the course was increasing almost overnight — Safier said he hoped to be able to retain the position. He said the reduction of Andrews was based solely on class size, while the other four eliminations, which went to “non-professional” status teachers, were based on performance.

Noting that some advanced placement classes had only a handful of students, city councilor Bruce Tobey said he was concerned that “some folks who are setting educational policy” – he specified the School Committee and superintendent – “see Gloucester as a leafy suburb with a school system like Lincoln or Manchester Essex that misses completely one of the things that makes this a great place.”

“It is not a white-collar, bedroom suburb,” Tobey said. “The vocational education program has been a successful engine for career growth here for decades.”

Safier said he was aware of such criticism, but had not yet had the opportunity to explore it. As of next year, all AP classes will have at least 12 students, he said.

The union’s Pretzler, meanwhile, said she was bothered because the letters of notification – the pink slips – were sent out without any discussion between officials and the union.

In the past, “we always were engaged in such discussions with the superintendent,” she said. Safier succeeded interim superintendent Joseph Connelly in 2011; he in turn, had taken over from seven-year superintendent Christopher Farmer in the summer of 2010.

She said she was also concerned because the “no-rehire” letters cited no reason for the potential dismissals. Pretzler acknowledged that was “within the administration’s right, but it came as a shock.”

“Many people have complained to me that it happened that way,” she said.

Pretzler said that, while she believed the cuts were not based on dollars, “the enrollment in the voke ed program always fluctuated.”

“I’m concerned because children there learn a very specific skill set,” she said. “Yes, there are AP classes with very few students, but I believe our mission is to educate all children.”