TAUNTON – A local state senator and the head of the local teachers union are urging Mayor Shaunna O’Connell to dip into the city’s stabilization account, so that teachers and other school workers who have received pink slips will be able to retain their jobs.
“That’s what a rainy day fund is for,” said state Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, immediately after delivering a speech to a crowd gathered on Taunton Green late Friday afternoon for what was billed as a Rally to Reverse Cuts.
Pacheco, during his speech, urged residents to “put pressure on all local officials” to fill the budgetary shortfall.
“Stabilization dollars,” he said, “are right here in Taunton to bridge the gap.”
Friday’s rally came nearly two weeks after “notice of non-renewal” letters were sent by Superintendent of Taunton Schools John Cabral to 158 public school system employees.
It also came little more than a week after Cabral presented his fiscal year 2021 budget — which included $5.8 million in spending cuts — to the Taunton City Council during a budget hearing.
In addition to layoffs, the cuts reflected the cancellation of contracts for after-school programs with nonprofit groups and agencies, as well as previously existing, open staffing positions that will not be filled.
Some school committee members have said that if the unions don’t agree to give up contractual wage increases it’s all but certain that most of those who have gotten pink slips won’t be recalled.
Cabral has said that negotiations with the five unions representing school workers are ongoing.
Gov. Charlie Baker last January proposed a $44.6 billion FY2021 budget that included $68 million in Chapter 70 school-aid funding to Taunton.
But the devastating economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic — which reportedly has resulted in a statewide drop in sales and income tax revenue expected to range from $4 billion to $7 billion – have left municipalities in the lurch when it comes to their own budgets.
Because a final state budget has not yet been worked out and approved by Baker and the legislature, cities and towns still don’t know how much Chapter 70 funding they’ll get for the next fiscal year starting July 1.
The city’s preliminary budget provides the school department with a level-funded amount matching that from the current fiscal year that expires next week on June 30.
Mayor O’Connell said the final amount the city contributes to the school department in fiscal 2021 could increase if local aid from the state exceeds expectations.
Taunton Education Association President James Quaintance says 112 of those who have received pink slips include full-time classroom teachers; special education teachers; instructional coaches who assist teachers with their curriculum; and guidance counselors.
The remaining 46, he said, include office secretaries, security guards, nurses, custodians and kitchen staff.
Quaintance, who teaches business technology at Taunton High School, had issued a press release stating that there’s currently $17.5 million available in the city’s stabilization, or rainy day, account “that can save these positions.”
Mayor O’Connell, however, during her June 2 preliminary FY2021 budget presentation, said that $15 million remained in the stabilization account after $2.5 million had been utilized in order to balance the new budget.
School committee member Carol Doherty, who recently won a special election to become the 3rd Bristol District state representative, a position formerly held by Mayor O’Connell, says that utilizing the city’s stabilization fund to retain teaching positions should at least be considered.
O’Connell, who was not at the rally, later sent an email in response to a request for comment.
In the email she notes that the amount of funding to the school department in her budget exceeds the minimum net school spending amount required by the state.
The mayor, in describing her “cautious” approach to formulating the budget, notes that the unemployment rate in the city is running at 21 percent and that local, small businesses have been suffering.
O’Connell also states that a temporary freeze on pay increases for school department workers “would allow for jobs to be reinstated.”
Tasha Cordero, president of the Bristol-Plymouth Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers at Bristol-Plymouth Regional Technical School in Taunton, also spoke.
Cordero later confirmed that 13 B-P educators received pink slips on June 12, one day before this year’s graduating class held a remote, virtual graduation ceremony.
“It was an incredibly sad day,” said Cordero, who accuses Bristol-Plymouth Superintendent Alexandre Magalhaes of having been “incredibly insensitive” for emailing the pink slips three days before he was contractually obligated to do so.
Cordero says the 13 laid-off staff members include seven vocational instructors and six academic teachers. She said they represented 11.5 percent of B-P’s teaching staff.
Cordero is also upset that Magalhaes issued permanent “non-renewal” letters of termination based on one’s performance — as opposed to standard layoff notices — to the teachers and instructors, all of whom, she said, have taught there for less than three years.
She says there’s no obligation on the part of the superintendent to rehire any teacher who has not yet achieved “professional status” after three years of teaching at Bristol-Plymouth.
Cordero alleges that four of those who were laid off were four days away from achieving the professional status.
A message seeking comment from Magalhaes was not immediately returned.
The Taunton Green rally was boisterous and upbeat, with cars, trucks and at least one fire truck honking horns in support of the teachers and their supporters.
Union members of Local 138 of the Taunton Fire Department stood on the Green holding signs supporting the Taunton educators.
Local 138 president Jay Lawrence said he’s “got a lot of respect for teachers.”
Erin Gallant, a special education department occupational therapist at Joseph C. Chamberlain Elementary School, was holding a sign in support of those teachers who received pink slips.
“I would hope that if the city has any extra funding available it would rise to the occasion,” she said.
Fellow occupational therapist Sarah Aldridge, who for the past two years worked at East Taunton Elementary School, said that she remains optimistic but admits that no one can predict the outcome.
“Nobody really has answers,” Aldridge, 28, said.
Brookline native Dave Cavell, a 4th Congressional District candidate for the Sept. 1 Democratic primary election, made the trip to Taunton Green.
Cavell, 36, says that he taught a fourth-grade class in the South Bronx for two years before becoming a speechwriter for former Gov. Deval Patrick and former President Barack Obama.
More recently, he said, he worked as an assistant attorney general for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.
“What we really need is federal funding,” said Cavell, who says that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “should be ashamed of himself.”
“Teachers are being laid off across the country,” he added. “This is not abstract. It’s something that’s real right now.”