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The Budget Freeze and Cuts: What Do They Add Up to for the Math and Science Departments?

By: Katarina Maldarelli

Because Belmont citizens voted “No” on the override of Proposition 2 ½ –which would have enabled the town of Belmont to increase property taxes, and thereby town revenues, to cover expenses for the school–Belmont Public Schools will be experiencing a budget freeze and budget cuts for FY23 and FY24. What kind of impact, if any, will the freeze and cuts have on student learning in math and science classes now and in the near future? For some answers to this question, I sat down with Jonathon Golden, Director of the Math Department, and Elizabeth Baker, Director of the Science Department.

When I met with Mr. Golden for the interview, I was very pleasantly surprised to hear that the budget freeze has resulted in little to no impacts on the Math Department. In fact, he characterized the impacts of the budget freeze on his department as a mere “nuisance,” resulting in only some minor supply ordering interruptions. Mr. Golden admitted, however, that if persistent budget freezes were to result in decreased access to textbooks and math supplies, that could obviously negatively impact student learning.

When asked whether the budget cuts will have a negative effect on student learning, Mr. Golden responded that if such budget cuts were to persist and ultimately lead to staff cuts, obviously this would not be a good thing, because teacher shortages always negatively affect student learning. Fortunately, in the case of the Math Department, Mr. Golden indicated that the budget cuts did not result in any staff cuts, and, in fact, the Math Department is gaining a teacher for FY24, which is very good news.

During Ms. Baker’s interview, she indicated that the budget cuts would also not result in the loss of staff in the Science Department. Like the Math Department, they will be gaining one new teacher for FY24. However, with regard to supplies and curriculum offerings, the picture she described was not as rosy. Ms. Baker explained that the budget freeze has affected their plans to outfit the science rooms with the equipment they would like to have. For example, the freeze has prevented the middle school from replacing some worn-out tools and other equipment, and, at the high school, the physics classes are sharing one laser pointer between four classes, which is understandably not ideal. Microscopes, balances, and hotplates are the kinds of equipment that will suffer from the budget freeze on supplies. The freeze has also led to some teachers buying basic supplies and paying for them out of their own pockets.

Even though these kinds of negative impacts are disheartening, I was pleased to learn that Ms. Baker and many other staff members were allowed, if not encouraged, to provide input on budget concerns. Ms. Baker explained how she and others were able to submit a list of items they needed or wanted for their classrooms. She described the process as “equitable and transparent” and said that most of the very necessary items were being funded. However, she did express some stress that the freeze is prohibiting the funding for all the items she would like to see in the science classrooms. One of these items, for example, is textbooks for science classes. She explained that if the Science Department were to adopt a new textbook, the expense for that would consume the entire science supplies budget, while in the same breath admitting that AP Biology, AP Environmental Science, AP Chemistry, and AP Physics are just some of the classes that really do need new textbooks. Ms. Baker commented that the PTSO had been a source of funding for these kinds of supplies, but, more recently, they have regarded this specific type of supply expense as the responsibility of the school. She went on to say that in view of the budget cuts, however, the PTSO might revise its view and help fund these kinds of supplies again.

Ms. Baker remarked that another important type of science supply that may be negatively impacted is online subscriptions, such as Gizmos. Gizmos is a virtual and interactive science simulation, which is an alternative to more costly in-class labs. However, these online alternatives to in-class labs are not without their own costs. According to Ms. Baker, the cost of a subscription to Gizmos for approximately 400 students and 10 teachers is $27,000–not an insignificant amount.

Ms. Baker went on to say that the budget freeze has also impacted some curriculum offerings, including some labs like “Gel Electrophoresis” in AP Biology. While Ms. Baker states that she would not characterize the budget freeze as having a “catastrophic” effect on the Science Department, it has, nevertheless, eliminated some experiences that students would otherwise have had this year, which puts students “further behind on our long-term planning.” One of Ms. Baker’s biggest concerns having to do with long-term budget cuts is that they won't be able to “fully utilize the spaces in this gorgeous building.”

As has been shown, the math and science departments were fortunate that the budget cuts did not affect them, as they did not result in any staff cuts to their departments. Despite that bit of good news, both departments are experiencing some problems with classroom supplies and equipment, as well as curriculum offerings. Still, it is nice to see that the math and science departments have not been drastically affected by the budget freeze and budget cuts. All that said, what I'm hearing is that the only real solution to this problem is convincing Belmont voters to vote “Yes” on a Proposition 2 ½ override.

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