Board of Ed. presents budget

[wpaudio url=”http://www.mycitizensnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/joint-boards-package.mp3″ text=”Redistricting, state mandates and ‘scare tactics'”]

NAUGATUCK — The Board of Education last Thursday presented its 2010-11 budget request—which represents an $899,000, or 1.6 percent, increase over the current year’s budget—to the joint boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Finance.

The request reflects all of the school board’s recent cost-reducing adjustments: a switch of health insurance benefits managers, the cutting of two school days and one professional day, and a 55-person, or 14 percent, reduction of certified staff.

The budget request also accounts for Salem School, which was slated for closure, as of a March 30 vote, remaining open. The board rescinded the original vote last week, and members at the time said they’d rather see what the joint boards would allocate before making drastic decisions.

Further, school board members said, almost half of the Salem closure’s $392,000 of projected savings, three positions worth about $190,000, could be cut elsewhere, if Salem stays open.

And while all parties maintained a collegial tone during the presentation, tensions ran high, as some Finance Board members alleged the education board had employed “scare tactics” by rescinding the Salem vote.

“I hope we can be re-reconsidering looking at closing a school, no matter what it is,” said Matt Katra, a Finance Board member. “We should reconsider closing a school, if it’s going to save six positions. I almost want to say it seems like a scare tactic: ‘Oh, if we don’t get this funding, these are the worst possible cuts we can possibly make; we’re going to throw this up, when there’s other cuts that can possibly be made.’”

Katra was referring to Salem as well as the so-called “tier-three” cuts, which were outlined March 30, as part of a broader cost-savings plan. Tiers one and two were closing Salem and switching benefits managers, respectively.

Tier-three cuts, which were never acted upon, would amount to $1.2 million in savings through further staff reduction but “devastate” the educational program across the district, according to Director of Instruction Bridgette Crispino.

Finance Board member Diane Scinto shared Katra’s sentiment, and said she was “beside myself upset” over the board’s reversal of its vote to close Salem because, “I thought you guys made a really tough decision to do that. Next year, again, you’re not going to have easy decisions. To do something like this, and then to go around next year and maybe have to redistrict again or close another school, let’s just do it and get it over with. That’s my feeling now. At that moment, my feeling was I went from a 2 percent increase I was willing to give to a zero, because I was so upset that you didn’t have the guts to stand by what you felt that you needed to do. So was it, as Matt said before, a scare tactic, to do something to get parents riled up about closing a school?”

Board of Education Chairwoman Kathleen Donovan responded, “That was no one’s intent. We’re not using scare tactics. We’re doing what’s educationally right within what the budget allocation is.”

Burgess Anthony Campbell stood up for the school board and said any government entity would do the same thing, in the face of a public backlash like that which the board endured after voting to close Salem.

“When I first read the article, I agreed with Diane [Scinto], I thought it was a set-up; it put the ball in out court,” he said, “but the more I kept thinking about it, what they did is no different than what we do. When we have a public hearing and there’s enough people speaking against something, when we come back to the table we usually add or subtract from it.”

Dan Sheridan, another Finance Board member, countered that the pro-Salem audience at the school board’s public hearing was “skewed” and “not representative of the whole town.”

It’s still unclear whether the joint boards will allocate the 1.6 percent increase to the school board, but Donovan pointed out that the request is actually about $50,000 less than the total adopted budget for the current fiscal year. The borough assumed a projected overrun of approximately $950,000 in December, as the school board struggled to adopt an operating budget. The 2010-11 request, though a $900,000 increase over 2009-10’s initial budget, is still less than the borough’s total liability for the school board this year.

Borough Controller and Interim Board of Ed. Business Manager Wayne McAllister projected the school board would overspend by $750,000 in the current year, not the total $950,000 the borough agreed to take on.

“I wanted to make the case that the town give us the funding because I think the board has done an enormous task in going from a $6.5 [million] increase to $800,000,” Donovan said, though the increase, as presented, was $899,000, not $800,000. “I think we’ve done all we can possibly do … I have to commend everyone in the district who works for us. They’ve done a great job, and we’ve just kept taking and taking and taking from them to get this budget down. So I would respectfully ask the boards to seriously make the allocation as we’ve requested it.”

Burgess Mindy Fragoso tried to dispel what she sees as a false perception about the relationship between the borough-side and education-side governments.

“It’s always the perception that [the borough is] not funding these things. No. It is the Board of Ed.’s choice to fund what they can or choose to fund with the monies that we have to give [them],” she said. “I wish it was utopia and we had all the money in the world, but unfortunately, I think more people know it’s not possible, more now than ever, because it’s happening in people’s homes.”

The joint boards picked apart the school board’s budget request line item by line item at the meeting, which ran more than three hours. Some had their own ideas about reconfiguration, some questioned why a 14 percent staff reduction couldn’t precipitate a similar cut to administrative staff, and some complained about unfunded education mandates imposed by the state and federal governments.

Notably, Burgess Bob Neth asked whether the school board had reviewed his reconfiguration plan, which he acknowledged was only speculative and not informed by professional insight. He had proposed a system of neighborhood, brother-sister K-3 and 4-6 schools—“I just like to toy with these things and try to create some scenarios,” he said. “I try to look at it from a common sense approach.”

Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Tindall-Gibson said that such a plan had been addressed in talks with JCJ Architecture, but “one of the things that became apparent to us is that we can’t really afford to do the neighborhood schools, and we can’t really afford to do the K-3, 4-6, which is a great configuration for a lot of reasons.”

He said class sizes would also become a problem in such a system. Tindall-Gibson further said that Naugatuck elementary schools “were built for a time and age that has gone by.” The town would need to build a large, new elementary school within the next 10 years, he said—just as Mayor Bob Mezzo asserted a week before—and by not closing a school next year, the board would “delay that path” another year and allow the school board to assess its inventory and explore building options and make a “well-studied decision.”

Burgess Pat Scully then repeated an appeal he had made at the board’s public hearing two weeks ago: that the board put a “one-year moratorium” on any school configuration changes. He also excoriated the state’s imposition of mandated program without funding, adding that “Once that grant money disappears, we’re stuck with [the program], and no one has the guts to say, ‘You know what, we don’t have the money to fund it; that program’s gone.’ … We have to cut out some of these programs that aren’t definitely legally-mandated.”

The Finance Board is scheduled to present a budget to the Board of Mayor and Burgesses Monday. A public hearing will follow May 11, and the joint boards will vote on the budget May 13.