Yes for Reading, a municipal ballot committee advocating for a Proposition 2 ½ override ballot question and a “Yes” vote on that question, hosted its kick-off meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading on Wednesday, October 18. The meeting featured several speakers including the chairs of the board of selectmen, the school committee and the finance committee.
John Arena, chair of the board of selectmen, focused on the fact that expenses for town government were growing at a rate of 3 ½ to 4 percent – much faster than the 2 ½ percent revenue growth that is allowed under state law. Because of this Reading has a four firefighter deficit and a three police officer deficit from what it needs. “With 6,000 more residents, Reading has the same number of police officers as it did in 1967.” Arena noted.
Chuck Robinson, member of the school committee added that 32 positions in the school department have been cut over the last five years. These have led to less teacher support, higher class sizes and fewer course choices for Reading Memorial High School students. Reading is 291st out of 326 districts in Massachusetts in per pupil spending and is 27th out of 30 identified peer communities in the same statistic. “It is like we are playing with only ten or nine men in the huddle.” Robinson explained citing a football analogy.
Peter Lydecker, member of the finance committee further explained that although free cash has been used to bolster the budget, municipal and school services have not been level funded for five years.
Three Reading school teachers shared their stories as well. Heidi Murray, a second grade teacher at Birch Meadow Elementary School for 18 years, spoke of less support, less professional development and fewer new curriculum materials. She gave an account from that day where she spent 20 minutes of her 30-minute prep period clearing a jam from a copier, because there was no office staff to do it. “Minimal professional development, less prep time and lack of new materials are factors in my inability to teach as well as I did 18 years ago.” Murray added.
Tara Herlihy, a teacher in the Connections program at Coolidge Middle School shared that her program lost 1/2 a teacher this year, yet the number of students in the program has doubled in the last few years. Her role was also expanded to include reading instruction, taking her focus away from the students that need her the most. “My ability to do everything I can for my students is compromised by lack of funding.” Herlihy shared.
Lynna Williams, RMHS director of guidance, shared that the high school has had eight positions cut over the last two years, reducing staff in every department. This has led to fewer sections of each course being offered and to larger class sizes. It has also limited student flexibility on what coursework they can take, and movement between levels if students are not succeeding where they are. Williams shared examples of students who wished to take multiple science courses and were unable to do so because there were no teachers to teach the extra course sections that were needed. She also shared that a student who was doing poorly in an honors section was unable to transfer to a college prep. section because there was no room in any of the sections of that course. Williams also reported that despite constant effort, the school’s technology department cannot keep up with the demand, meaning that many technical devices were not ready to be used by teachers and students for several weeks into the school year.
The meeting ended with a plea from committee co-chair, Erin Gaffen, for people to get involved in any way that they could. Only one-third of Reading voters voted in the previous override attempt last October. Gaffen estimated that “yes” would need 4,500 votes to pass in the April 3 election.
The kick-off event can be seen in its entirety on RCTV’s YouTube page.