BOE votes to keep Salem open, for now

[wpaudio url=”http://www.mycitizensnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/BOE-package-042210.mp3″ text=”Board rescinds Salem vote, approves budget request”]

NAUGATUCK — The Board of Education voted, 4-3, Monday to overturn its March 30 vote to close Salem School, but members acknowledged the decision might need to be revisited, depending on how much money the school system is allocated for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

By an identical vote, members approved, 4-3, a budget request representing an $899,000, or 1.6 percent, increase over the current year’s budget. The board was scheduled to present that request to the joint boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Finance Thursday, after printing.

Though no one could predict how the joint boards would receive the request, some Board of Ed. members agreed more cuts are inevitable.

“I think we’re going to be right back here next week or in a couple of weeks going over this exact same thing, because we’re not going to have enough money allocated,” said board member Rocky Vitale, who voted to rescind the Salem vote and approve the $57.05 million budget request. “But you know what? I want that decision to be forced on me at this point.”

Board chair Kathleen Donovan sided with Vitale on both issues—though the chair does not vote, except to break ties—and said she was “comfortable” requesting the 1.6 percent increase and with reversing the Salem decision.

“I think this board knows I was not in favor of closing Salem School,” she said. “I was not in favor of taking a school offline. I think that we could need it in the future. I think if we turn around and need another school two or three years down the road, and we have to go to the town … I don’t know if we’re going to get a lot of support for that.”

Mayor Bob Mezzo voted against both the Salem reversal and the budget request. He said the issue, as far as Salem goes, is “twofold. One is there’s an additional savings [through a school closure] that occurs on an annual basis that goes up,” he said, “particularly when you take off the unemployment [compensation] and some of the insurance savings. Two is the disruption that you’re going to cause.

“Essentially we’re going to do it this year with the middle school consolidation, with moving elementary schools, and we’re going to talk about it next year, inevitably, again. We can drag this process out a long time and keep the drama in the community back and forth about, ‘Is it going to stay or is it going to go?’ And I don’t think that’s productive, either.”

He predicted the joint boards would come back with a number somewhere between the flat, zero-percent increase they requested of all departments and the $900,000 increase the education board agreed to seek, and asserted Salem’s closure would be “the $300,000 variable.”

School board Secretary Dave Heller voted with Mezzo on both counts. When Donovan said the cuts that had been made—which brought the increase down from about $7 million to the final $899,000—were “huge” and “the most that we’ve ever done in any one budget year that I can recall,” Heller shot back that it still wasn’t enough.

“You know, Kathleen, if you play football and you run the ball from your goal line down to the 10-yard line of the opposing team, which is what we’ve done, and then you fumble the ball, all that effort is for naught. You’ve got to get it in. You’ve got to get the money, and you’ve got to get it approved. They’re not going to approve it at this percent [increase].”

The board added approximately $266,000 back into its budget by keeping Salem open. Though its closure was slated to save $424,000 on March 30, when it was originally voted upon, that number had since dropped to $392,000; the board also subtracted from that the projected cost of bussing Salem students elsewhere.

The board further estimated a $320,000 savings by cutting two days off the school year, which was approved Monday; a $151,000 savings by eliminating a professional development day; a $100,000 savings through increased employee co-pays on its health insurance; and a $45,000 savings in its substitute account because of a 15 percent staff reduction.

Previously, the board had made staff cuts, switched insurance benefits managers and approved a district reconfiguration in an effort to close its budget gap.

“This is the first time in my history of following the process that there hasn’t been the ‘We’re going to cut sports’ and ‘We’re going to cut music,’” Mezzo said. “This board has done a lot, but there’s more on the table. … [These decisions are] going to drag this community through some more turmoil, some more heartache, and it’s a very sad thing that we’re doing. We need to move forward, and it’s going to be a tough couple of months the way we’re going. I hope we don’t have to go to a referendum, but it’s certainly not looking that way right now. And that’s going to be a long summer.”