When music teacher Nina Bishop left a job to work in Brookline public schools she did so, in part, because she thought it would offer better job security. This spring she was among some 360 Brookline teachers to receive a pink slip.
“I am an optimistic person, and I believe I will find a way forward no matter what,” she said. “But this is a hard one.”
The layoffs come as Brookline town officials say they’re facing a $12 million budget deficit fueled by more than two months of lost parking, restaurant and other business revenues from the COVID-19 shutdowns.
On May 29, the day the pink slips went out, Jessica Wender-Shubow, the president of the Brookline Educators Union, suggested in an interview with WGBH News an out-of-the-box solution to the town’s gaping budget deficit: seek private donations.
“If we are in this together let me just say, this is the time for people of means to step up and contribute to their schools,” said Wender-Shubow. “We have an emergency situation due to an unprecedented historical crisis.”
From the beginning, Brookline town officials have said they hope to find money to bring back most, if not all, of the teachers. But some see Brookline’s budget challenges as a warning sign for schools across the state and a reason to consider unconventional funding sources as a key deadline looms. By state law, towns and cities have to let teachers with less than three years on the job know by June 15, Monday, if they’re going to be laid off.
“If Brookline is going to have to lay people off, every school district in the state is going have problems,” said Greg Sullivan, research director for the Pioneer Institute.
He said in the wake of the pandemic shutdown, communities across the state are grappling with the same issue as Brookline — a dramatic drop off in local revenues. The Massachusetts Teachers Association is predicting thousands of teacher layoffs. If ever there was a time to seek private donations to fill school budget gaps, he said, this is it.
”I do not see how it would be a bad thing if generous people with financial resources decide to make contributions toward local school districts,” said Sullivan. “In fact, this would probably be the best time in history to do that.”
Many schools, especially in wealthier communities, already raise money through parent organizations and private foundations. The Brookline Education Foundation last year raised $300,000 said executive director Elizabeth Ascoli.
“Parents are very interested in education here and very willing to support teachers and local schools,” said Ascoli.
But she said her foundation has a targeted mission, to raise money for teacher training. Raising private money for the school budget she said would be challenging: “I think people feel as though this is the district’s job.”
Relying on large donors to fund school operations also creates a potential conflict of interest said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
“What if a corporation gives money and it has a proposal pending before the planning board, is that a quid pro quo?” asked Beckwith. “That’s the reason we have taxes. We have taxes because there’s a commonality and a common stake in our future.”
Relying on private donations to fill funding gaps would also, he said, deepen economic inequities.
“What happens in those communities that are left behind? Do they fall further behind?” said Beckwith. “Because wealth is not uniformly distributed throughout Massachusetts.”
It’s a fair point said Wender-Shubow, who in a follow up interview back-tracked on her initial call for private donations to bail out the budget gap. Instead she’s in line with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which is calling for the federal government to pass the largest spending bill in U.S. history — the $3 trillion dollar Heroes Act.
“We need the millionaires and billionaires of Brookline to step up and support the Heroes Act,” she said, “and support progressive taxation on themselves, now.”
It’s not just towns and cities that need the help. Massachusetts' state government is facing a projected $6 billion tax revenue shortfall. Similar fiscal crises are playing out across the country said Geoff Beckwith of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Although that massive spending bill is now stalled in the U.S. Senate, he’s optimistic that ultimately it will pass.
“The problem is,” he said, “the later it gets, the harder it is, the more uncertainty, the more people get layoff notices, the more people are just worried about their own future.”
Editor’s note: We updated this story to add information about which teachers the cities and towns are legally obligated to let know about layoffs by June 15. If a teacher hasn’t reached three years of service in their district, they must receive notification that they are being laid off by mid month.