August 5, 2008

School Jobs May Return

By Amanda McGregor, The Salem News, Beverly, Mass.

Aug. 5--SALEM -- With money expected from a state energy bill, the schools would rehire some first-grade teachers, school librarians and other positions cut from next year's school budget.

Superintendent William Cameron Jr. said he hopes the schools will see $500,000, for which he outlined priorities at last night's School Committee meeting.

The list includes restoring three first-grade teachers, a school nurse and the library aides in each school.

"We need to be cautious here," Cameron said. "We need to have an indication that this money will be forthcoming (by the end of the next school year)."

The money would come from a renewable energy trust fund that aims to aid Salem in the likely event future payments drop from the city's largest taxpayer: the coal-and-oil-fired Salem Harbor Station power plant. The schools would see a portion of that.

Mayor Kim Driscoll, who is chairwoman of the School Committee, seemed confident the money would become available and she asked the committee for its "final blessing" on restoration priorities so that the schools can act immediately when the funds are guaranteed. The committee voted unanimously on Cameron's recommendations.

The funds will be welcome in the Salem schools, which faced a midyear budget crisis last year that forced budget cuts and layoffs during the winter. Then the School Committee slashed more than $3 million from next year's school budget through job cuts, increased fees, and other cuts to materials and supplies.

"I am relieved, but I'm anxious about the timing of the money," Cameron said during a telephone interview yesterday. "It would be very difficult, after the school year starts, to add classes at the elementary level."

Cameron said the money needs to be guaranteed before he can recall people who were laid off, and School Committee member Nate Bryant raised the concern last night that many laid-off Salem employees may have taken jobs elsewhere.

"Those people may well have found other employment," Cameron said, "We're going to have to scramble to find competent people to fill these positions."

Cameron said early literacy is key, so he and Assistant Superintendent Alyce Davis are reviewing test scores at each school to see where smaller first-grade classes are essential.

"There are many needs," Cameron said, "but what we've worked on administratively is to identify what we believe are the greatest needs."

Driscoll said last night that she is pushing to restore all the first-grade teaching positions for the sake of "equity" and "fairness" to all the schools. Cameron is projecting $225,000 in savings through the special education program, but that money is already dedicated to paying for five elementary teachers whose salaries were covered by a grant that the schools lost.

Cameron said he also hopes to restore vocational-technical education and art classes and materials, as well as a few technology and music positions.

The elementary school librarians were all cut from next year's budget, as were the library aides in the upper school level. Those will all be restored if the schools get the $500,000.

"The library paraprofessionals are deemed to be very important by the principals and parents in many of the schools," Cameron said.

However, if restored, the librarians would not come back as full-time employees and would instead work under 19 hours per week so the district won't have to pay them benefits, which would cost nearly $120,000.

Dominion, which owns Salem Harbor Station, will have to pay millions of dollars in penalties under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which is a cooperative effort among Northeastern states to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide, a so-called greenhouse gas blamed for climate change.

As a result, the plant has argued that its value, and also its tax bill, should be reduced. If Dominion were to pay the city less, the amount needed to keep the city payment the same would come from a trust fund created under this energy bill. The money in that trust fund, which could be as much as $100 million, will come from "allowances," or payments fossil fuel plant owners like Dominion make for emitting carbon dioxide.

The RGGI Auction Trust Fund is being established to finance renewable and alternative energy projects.


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