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Select Board denies additional funding for School Department

Date: 3/21/2013

By Chris Maza

LONGMEADOW — At its March 18 meeting, the Select Board approved its fiscal year 2014 (FY14) budget of $57.2 million as originally presented with no additional funding for the School Department.

The decision came in spite of numerous objections from members of the School Committee and Longmeadow Public Schools, who were looking for a budget increase of more than $600,000. Finance Director Paul Pasterczyk said that in actuality the difference between the schools' proposed budget and the Select Board's was $726,000 with a $98,000 adjustment for the town taking over the cost of the fiber optic network and a small adjustment for special revenue.

Select Board Vice Chair Mark Gold previously told Reminder Publications that all departments, including the schools were given a directive to return budgets with a 0 percent increase and any additional funding requests would have to be justified.

The School Department's proposed budget of $33.9 million was constructed using a "partially zero-based approach," Superintendent Marie Doyle said during her Feb. 11 presentation. The proposal featured several concessions to minimize the impact of increases, which School Committee Chair Michael Clark stressed were necessary.

At the March 18 meeting, Select Board Chair Paul Santaniello acknowledged that at previous meetings, three members of the Select Board had presented alternative budgeting strategies that would afford additional funding to the schools. Selectman Marie Angelides recommended a 1 percent increase of the school's FY13 budget with changes to other areas, including cuts or bonding of capital projects, to balance the rest of budget. She also raised concerns about emptying the Free Cash and Employee Benefits Stabilization funds.

That proposal, however, was voted down. Gold said there were good elements within Angelides' proposal, however, he had several concerns, while the rest of the Select Board voiced wishes to hold the School Department to the same budgeting standards it had for all other departments.

"I keep coming back to the fact that there's only one decision and all this other stuff [regarding budget adjustments] is just side dressing. The only item that we have disagreement on on this board is what to do with the schools. All of this other discussion surrounds this decision and once we make that decision the other dominoes are going to fall fairly quickly," Selectman Richard Foster said.

"I have struck the line that you should do for all departments what you should do for one. We asked everyone for zero [percent increases] and all did but the schools. If we give additional money to the schools, I think we're obligated to so do for other departments who certainly have needs they have deferred," he added.

Santaniello agreed, pointing out that several departments made concessions and had aspects of their proposed budgets denied, using the Fire Department's request to add a deputy fire chief as an example.

He added that adjustments that board members have brought forward in discussions thus far do not go far enough to solve the problem anyway.

"If you're going to acquiesce and the schools say they need $605,000 or whatever the number is, coming in at $300,000 doesn't settle the budget," he said. "It doesn't create a budget that's balanced in their eyes because their number is at $605,000, not at $300,000 or $200,000 or $100,000."

Santaniello added, "I haven't had any phone calls asking to get together to talk about the budget. The only meeting we've had is the one that I called with the chair and with the finance director. I haven't gotten any messages saying the [School Committee] would like to come in and talk to us or anything like that, so I have to go by the fact that probably they are sticking by their $605,000, which was the number they gave us at the last meeting."

Selectman Mark Barowsky ultimately made a motion to pass a budget with no increases for the schools from the budget originally presented on Feb. 25, however, his suggestions for additional cuts to the budget in other areas spurred further debate.

Barowsky proposed a subtraction from the Police Department's budget of $30,000 originally allocated for a vehicle that Police Chief Robert Siano said was not needed and $13,700 due to the scheduled departure of a police officer later this year.

Santaniello suggested that the $13,700 be transferred to the reserve fund as a contingency in case the officer's situation changes and he stays with the department.

Barowsky was also very vocal in his objection of a $12,000 expenditure by the Department of Public Works (DPW) to equip its vehicles with GPS, stating that the GPS would only be effective if it could be used for disciplinary action, something that would have to be negotiated into the contracts.

Acting Town Manager Barry Del Castilho suggested that the board could insist upon language stating that the devices could be used for disciplinary action and the purchase of the GPS system would be contingent upon that agreement during bargaining.

Angelides objected to that requirement, stating that in asking for the GPS devices, DPW Director Michael Wrabel was taking steps toward making his department more efficient, which the Select Board had been requesting of him.

She stated that the data collected could be used to streamline services, to which Barowsky replied, "If he doesn't know how to use his trucks, he shouldn't be DPW director."

Gold said that he agreed with Angelides that the GPS was a valuable tool, but recognized that the board, without the stipulation, most likely would not approve it.

The budget with those adjustments was then approved by a 4-1 vote with Angelides issuing the negative vote.

Clark issued a written statement to Reminder Publications criticizing to the Select Board's decision and reiterating his earlier assertion that the issue could be taken to the Town Meeting floor on May 7.

The statement read, "We have met on several occasions with the Select Board, including jointly with the Finance Committee. We feel that the Select Board has had multiple opportunities to hear what the impacts of their FY14 budget recommendation would be on the district. We have told them that a $727,000 reduction would result in 15 positions being cut; we have told them that we would not be able to move forward with cost savings measures like adding the life skills position at the high school which will save us up to $400,000 by keeping three students in district.

"We feel that the budget passed by the Select Board is irresponsible and it puts this district in the position of having to make painful cuts that will impact the quality of education that we are able to deliver to our students.

"We have tried, both in open meeting and in direct negotiations, to gain some consensus from Select Board members on what type of reduction from our FY14 budget they would support to no avail. We have worked hard to identify areas we could reduce with minimal impact to the delivery of education in the classroom.

"Again, the Select Board has chosen to offer the community a false choice between funding our capital needs and funding our schools and they have chosen to go forward with that point of view. We reject that notion, and we are willing to work collaboratively with them to develop a capital plan. As of now, they are choosing to fund projects without a plan and it is coming at the expense of the schools.

"The town departments do not need to make reductions in their staffing levels, and the Select Board is able to cover increases in their salary lines reducing their forestry line a point they have failed communicate to the community.

"At this point, the Select Board has left the School Committee with no choice but to take an amended budget to the floor of Town Meeting. As always, we are working in the best interest of the students."