NAUGATUCK — After spending more than two hours behind closed doors Monday night at City Hill Middle School, the Board of Education emerged with a cost-saving plan it hopes will make up all but $372,000 of a more-than-$2 million budget deficit and prevent layoffs during the current school year.
The problem is the Naugatuck Teachers’ League won’t entertain the proposal until the board puts to public vote a concession package approved by the NTL Nov. 24.
About 200 parents, students, teachers and others attended the meeting, which was held in the school’s auditorium. Some left while board members huddled in executive session, but many waited until the body returned, just after 10 p.m.
When the board reconvened, Chairwoman Kathleen Donovan outlined a series of cost-saving measures, chief among them a new health insurance program that would save an estimated $892,489. Beginning Jan. 1, the school system would replace its preferred provider organization (PPO) insurance with a health reimbursement account. The board’s insurance consultant, Alan Jackson, didn’t delve into many specifics but assured school employees that their healthcare network would remain unchanged.
“The benefit that you will have is that it will help the Board of Ed. meet some of their budget obligations,” Jackson said. “At the same time, we feel that we’re increasing your benefits and including the state-mandated benefits so that you can feel comfortable when we propose this plan design.”
The board, which operates as a self-funded insurance company, would continue to outsource management of its insurance program to Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. A more detailed overview of the new insurance plan has been posted on the school system’s Web site.
The remaining cost-saving measures mirrored closely the NTL’s Nov. 24 proposal, but in a statement released Tuesday, the union declared it would not consider the board’s offer until it votes on the NTL package, provides insurance information for review by the league’s own consultant, and presents a detailed early retirement program.
Rather than vote on the NTL package Monday, the board put together its own, similar plan that included the following savings:
- Three teacher furlough days, for a savings of $438,000
- Delaying until the 2010-11 school year the implementation of seven hours of after-school common planning time, for a savings of $105,000
- Four furlough days by administrators and district supervisors, saving $40,000
- Three furlough days by non-union staff, saving $17,700
- A reduced textbook budget, for a savings of $40,000
- A giveback by interim Business Manager Wayne McAllister, saving $4,000
Those and other, unspecified cost cuts would save $1,642,400, according to the board, leaving it $372,000 shy of its projected budget obligations.
In addition, the board bowed to several other NTL terms. It agreed to cancel spring parent-teacher conferences for all kindergarten through sixth-grade teachers. The teachers’ union had said cancelation of the conferences, which shorten regular school days to half days, would make up some of the classroom time lost to furloughs.
The board also conceded a “sick bank,” which would allow teachers to donate unused, paid sick days to severely ill colleagues who need them. Teachers would be allowed to donate one day each, up to 250 total days, through July 2010. Beginning July 1, 2010, a teacher suffering from long-term illness could apply to withdraw additional sick days from the bank. The bank would be governed by a six-member committee, comprised of two teachers, two administrators and two BOE representatives. The maximum total withdrawal from the sick bank would be 93 days during the current fiscal year, which is five months complete, and 186 in each of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 fiscal years.
The Board of Education had resisted consistently the implementation of a sick bank; Donovan and board Vice President Barbara Lewis told Citizen’s News in a Nov. 18 interview that the board already considers applications for extended sick leave on a case-by-case basis, making such a bank unnecessary.
Even as she read the terms of the sick bank at Monday’s meeting, Donovan made it clear that the system would be temporary.
“The sick bank program is for this concession package only and does not constitute bargaining history, nor does it set precedent,” she said. “Either party will have the opportunity, as always, to propose a long-term employee stability plan during the next contract negotiations, the cost of which would be considered with other contract costs.”
The board also acquiesced to the union’s request to negotiate an early retirement incentive plan—though the NTL’s response statement said it wants specific terms before it will consider the rest of the cost-saving proposal—and promised a good-faith effort to avoid requesting further concessions for the remainder of the current contract, which runs through the 2011-12 fiscal year.
“However,” Donovan qualified, “because the board’s budget is subject to allocation of dollars from the borough and its residents, any certainty is beyond the board’s control.”
There was one major element of the NTL’s proposal missing from that of the board: The resignation of Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Tindall-Gibson. The union, which last month voted no confidence in the 62-year-old school chief, included his departure as a condition of its concession package. Tindall-Gibson has insisted repeatedly that he will not step down.
Though the teachers’ other terms appear largely satisfied by the board’s proposal, NTL Vice President and spokesman Charley Marenghi said Tuesday the absence of Tindall-Gibson’s resignation is a deal-breaker.
“If he doesn’t resign, our offer is off the table,” he said. “It was an all-or-nothing package.”
The topic of the superintendent’s resignation is already a hot one on the Facebook page of Our Kids Come First, a fast-growing, 1,200-member group that opposes teacher layoffs and program cuts.
“The NTL proposal included [Tindall-Gibson’s] resignation because of the lack of faith that the teachers have in his leadership,” wrote Joel Knecht, a band teacher at Hillside Middle School. “I can’t tell you how the teachers will vote. I’m not even sure how I will vote yet because to many of them, the main reason they accepted the package was because his resignation was part of the deal. It was my understanding that the deal was not multiple-choice but a complete package.”
Donovan addressed the NTL’s demand Monday by saying, “The board cannot negotiate with any labor group over the voluntary resignation of any administrator.” While the decision to resign or not is Tindall-Gibson’s alone, the Board of Education does have the power to fire the superintendent for reasons that include “inefficiency or incompetence” and “other due and sufficient cause,” according to Tindall-Gibson’s contract.
Tindall-Gibson and Donovan, whom Mayor Bob Mezzo has asked to step down also, have presented a unified front. Other board members have not commented, but a recent post on Our Kids Come First’s Web page by BOE member Rocky Vitale indicates the superintendent’s dismissal will be discussed in the future.
“Please understand it would be irresponsible for a board member to provide public opinion on the [superintendent] leaving,” Vitale wrote. “There are contractual and legal issues to deal with, and [it] will be reviewed, but [we] need to do so carefully.”
Such a review may be moot, however, because according to Marenghi, the union will not accept Tindall-Gibson’s firing in place of his resignation.
As for the remaining, $372,000 shortfall, the Board of Education may approach the joint boards of mayor and burgesses and finance to request the sum. A cost-saving plan proposed last month by Mezzo included a much larger, $1.2 million transfer to the BOE, contingent upon Tindall-Gibson’s and Donovan’s resignations.
“I think it’s certain that the joint boards would consider any proposals and already has been looking for ways to close the deficit, mainly from asking the existing departments who are living within a [zero-increase] budget to tighten their belts even further,” the mayor said Monday. “Certainly there’s a lot of ifs in this proposed savings. When we get to determine whether those ifs are going to be actual savings, that’s a request we would bring to the joint boards. …
“I do find it difficult to accept that we’re this far into the year to get to this stage because a lot of this could have been done a long time ago.”
Even in a best-case scenario for the Board of Education—its plan is approved in its entirety, and its health insurance estimates are accurate—the school system could find itself in similar straights as it works to establish a budget for 2010-11. According to the Board of Education’s budget calendar, school administrators and department heads were to submit by Nov. 20 budget request forms for the next fiscal year. McAllister, the business manager, said last week those forms were not yet complete because a budget for the current fiscal year still has not been adopted.
Whenever those requests are made, there likely won’t be additional assets to satisfy them. Board of Finance Chairman Ray Lennon, Jr., who attended Monday’s meeting, said the Board of Education should expect its $56.1 million allocation to remain flat for a second straight fiscal year.
“We’ve told our departments to plan for a [zero-increase budget], and we’re holding fast to that,” he said.