NAUGATUCK — News that the school system’s projected 2009-10 budget shortfall has shrunk to $1.55 million, down from $2.33 million on Nov. 11, has not been enough to soothe tensions within and surrounding the Board of Education.
The board took no action at its regular meeting last Thursday but plans to present and vote upon a solution at a special meeting Thursday at 8 p.m. at Tuttle House. Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Tindall-Gibson said last month he expected the board would reconcile the budget gap by Wednesday.
A Board of Education negotiating subcommittee has met with Naugatuck Teachers’ League representatives three times since the week of Christmas, on Dec. 21, 27 and Jan. 7, but both sides have been quiet about their progress on a concession package. Wayne McAllister, borough controller and acting Board of Education business manager, reported at an impromptu meeting of the Board of Mayor and Burgesses, BOE finance subcommittee and borough Finance Board Tuesday night that that package would amount prospectively to $582,826. Given those concessions, the projected deficit would shrink to $965,206. The unions were expected to vote Wednesday and Thursday on concessions, which center on across-the-board furlough days.
School board members David Heller, Rocky Vitale and Mayor Bob Mezzo made frustrated claims Thursday that they, like the public, have not been privy to negotiation updates.
Heller’s comment, “I’m on the [negotiating] subcommittee, and I haven’t been involved in any of this,” drew laughter from the crowd of almost 100 people Thursday.
Heller’s chief complaint, however, was that the school board had not been speaking with the joint boards of mayor and burgesses and finance about a possible bailout that would close whatever remains of the budget gap, after presumptive union concessions. The borough transferred approximately $1 million to the Board of Education at the end of last fiscal year to compensate for overspending, and Mezzo has talked repeatedly about further assistance this year, though he reminded last Thursday that the decision is the joint boards’, not his alone.
The borough boards, represented at Tuesday’s meeting at Tuttle House by Mezzo, Deputy Mayor Tamath Rossi and Burgess Bob Neth, said a bailout from the municipal side would be contingent upon not only concessions from the bargaining units but also an assurance that McAllister would remain acting BOE business manager, at least through June 2011—a proposition to which McAllister neither agreed nor objected Tuesday—and that the Board of Education would consider, in good faith, replacing its current USI insurance consultant with the borough’s CBC Kane representative. Mezzo expressed his faith in the Kane consultant and questioned the USI representative’s competence, in light of a proposed insurance switch that was supposed to save some $900,000.
Those purported savings were scrutinized heavily after they were proposed Nov. 30—McAllister said four insurance advisers analyzed the health plan last week—and the school board conceded in its latest budget summary that the plan will not achieve those savings.
Heller said Tuesday that the move to a self-funded insurance system has presented nothing but problems, and Mezzo agreed, saying insurance concerns have “invaded” the BOE’s budget since the switch.
Tuesday’s meeting was spurred by last week’s spirited exchange about the borough’s inclusion in the school budget process.
“The $900,000 savings from insurance that we thought we had, we don’t have, and we need the town’s money,” Heller said last Thursday. “So why aren’t we opening a dialogue now to set that up and put that in position so that [this Thursday] we can solve our budget problem?”
Mezzo indicated the school board would improve its chance of receiving money from the borough if it included the joint boards in the budget process.
“I’d prefer that if there’s any expectation whatsoever that the borough is involved in any sort of solution that there is an opportunity to have a discussion about what that would be,” the mayor said. “The last thing that can happen is this board meets, the bargaining units meet, and then you come to the borough and expect a unilateral commitment at that point, without being involved in the process. That’s not gonna happen.”
Donovan replied, “I think we’re a little premature here,” an assessment with which several crowd members voiced their disagreement. “We need to let the subcommittee finish the work. … We don’t know what is going to be the result of the subcommittee and the bargaining units working out.”
According to comments made Tuesday by Tindall-Gibson and school board member Jim Scully, the $965,000 deficit would not change before Thursday, a date the Board of Education has already pushed back several times as a deadline for a solution. They indicated that the budget had been stretched as far as it could possibly go. In fact, Tindall-Gibson said, some printers in the schools are offline because the schools can’t afford toner.
Mezzo spoke to the municipal side’s concerns that a bailout of the school system would make other, unrelated local officials peeved.
“The other department heads are angry,” he said. “They got a zero [percent increase] this year, and now they’re being asked to tighten up” to account for a possible BOE bailout.
Another Board of Education member seemed skeptical last week that the borough would actually come through with financial assistance. When Heller repeated his belief that Mezzo would “support us trying to get some money from the borough,” Thomas McKirryher asked, “Do you believe that?”
Finance Board Chairman Ray Lennon, Jr. said Tuesday that regardless of the mayor’s and other officials’ support of the bailout, it won’t be an easy measure to work through the joint boards.
“There are definitely members on the joint boards and borough board who will vote against allocating that money,” he said.
When asked how much the borough could afford to give the school board, Lennon laughed and responded, “We can’t really afford anything. Let’s start with that.”
At one point of last Thursday’s meeting, Vitale, who has made overtures to the board’s most vocal critics—the roughly 1,400 members of the community group Our Kids Come First, which has developed into a sort of education watchdog—proposed an independent investigation of the budget deficit.
“The people, quite frankly, deserve a complete answer to why we have ended up in this position,” he said. “We really need a formal, written report on exactly what happened, how it happened, and if we need to name names, we name names.”
Vitale later withdrew his motion, when McAllister spoke up and offered a report of his own.
“I will give a report to the finance committee, from the perspective of the controller, and if you find it is necessary to go beyond that, then do so,” he said.
Tindall-Gibson, whom Mezzo commended for his cooperation with the borough, took the microphone toward the end of last week’s two-hour meeting and tried to restore some pleasantry to what was a largely combative evening.
“None of this is the fault of teachers,” he said. “I believe we are very close to putting [a solution] together.”
On Tuesday, he conceded that solution would require sacrifice from all parties involved.
“No one leaves a situation that’s developed like this one feeling good about it,” he said.