Voters to decide school budget compromise
By Chris Mazachrism@thereminder.com
LONGMEADOW The School Committee plans to propose the budget compromise reached by members of the Select Board and the School Committee on the floor at the May 7 Annual Town Meeting, despite the fact that the Select Board voted not to support the proposal.
The number reached in negotiations of $353,000 in increases to the School Department budget was rejected by the Select Board by a 3-2 vote at its April 16 meeting.
Initially, the Select Board's budget called for a zero percent increase to all departments, however, their figure differed from the School Committee's proposal by $726,000.
According to the School Department's initial budget proposal, there would be $1.3 million in increases, including $795,000 in cost of living, step increases and salary advancement for continued education. In order to reduce the total increase, the School Department also proposed more than $700,000 in reductions.
A working group consisting of School Committee Chair Michael Clark, School Committee member James Desrochers, Select Board Chair Paul Santaniello, Vice Chair Mark Cold, Finance Director Paul Pasterczyk and Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Thomas Mazza reached a tentative deal earlier this month that would have allowed the School Department a budgetary increase of $353,000.
That number represented a middle ground of a $706,000 figure which Desrochers said was the total proposed increase from fiscal year 2013 (FY13) to FY14.
"What we agreed to at the end of the day was to split the number," Desrochers explained to the School Committee at its April 22 meeting. "The School Committee would take a $353,000 reduction and the Select Board would find $353,000 in their budget to deal with."
The School Committee members involved in the working group agreed to make a reduction of a half-day kindergarten teacher, decline to staff the literacy programs the School Department wished to add and fund technology projects out of School Choice funding and transportation out of the monies collected through student fees.
Select Board representatives tentatively agreed to fund the Woodside Road sewer project through bonding, representing $275,000, and removing a $30,000 expenditure for a police vehicle from the budget.
Both sides also agreed to fund half of the capital projects to install new carpet and tile at Glenbrook Middle School and Blueberry Hill Elementary School.
However, when the Select Board discussed the issue at its April 16 meeting, Santaniello, along with Selectmen Mark Barowsky and Richard Foster, voiced concerns with the agreement.
Santaniello said that the starting figure for the negotiations of $706,000 was not a proper number because it didn't take into account a reduction of nearly $100,000 in the School Department budget due to the town's bonding of the fiber optic network.
He also said that the Police Department had already agreed to reduce its budget request by one cruiser and voiced skepticism in the town's ability to make it through the fiscal year without replacing at least one of the two originally proposed by the police and that the need to buy new vehicles would still exist next year.
"The bigger fault that I see with it is that you're going to take $60,000 out of the police department budget and add it to the School Department budget and next year we're not going to be able to get away with not being able to purchase two police cars," he said. "So they'll be back on the budget next year and it's going to show a $60,000 increase on that particular line item and [the school department's] budget isn't going to have that $60,000 in it because it will be back in the Police Department's budget."
He also equated the bonding of the Woodside Road project to "balancing the budget with a credit card."
He added, "We've forsaken the infrastructure to balance the budget. We've already done that and doing it again doesn't help the situation. All it does is make the infrastructure take a step back even further."
Barowsky also stated his unwillingness to make an exception for the School Department when other departments followed the Select Board's zero percent increase mandate and asserted the School Committee had roughly $770,000 in technology funds that could be used, but are not in the current proposals.
"The general government budgets found a way to live within that budget. In fact, general government budgets are down by half a percent and yet the schools were originally looking for an additional $726,000 above that," he said. "Now you're saying they're looking for an additional $353,000 above what they had last year, even with having $770,000 in cash in the bank that they refuse to spend to underwrite the budget."
He later added, "Certainly, when they are sitting on $700,000 cash, I am never going to agree to give them an extra $353,000 for the budget."
Foster concurred with Santaniello's credit card analogy and said he was wary of giving additional funding when the board didn't have any idea as to the outcome if the money was not provided.
"I have not seen anything associated with this request that had impact statements. I have no idea where the money is going to start with and we have no idea what the impacts will be if it's not given," he said. "I know there's been talk, but there has been nothing presented to this board that says, 'These are the exact impacts if this money is not given.' I have a lot of difficulty making decisions on hypothetical information without having actual impact statements issued.
"These programs are above and beyond the programs that are currently on the books at this point, so this is clearly an expansion of something that is not there, so the impacts should be pretty easy to lay before this board because they should not affect any personnel that is actually on board now," he continued.
Gold and Selectman Marie Angelides supported the compromise proposal.
"In keeping with the agreement that we had in the negotiating room, I am going to support this compromise because even though as I've said many times, it's not the best answer, it is an answer," Gold said.
Angelides acknowledged concessions made by the School Committee in order to offset cost of living and salary increases and said many of the increases in the budget represented higher costs facing the district.
"They came in with a plan showing where they wanted to go. It wasn't coming in and demanding, 'We want $726,000 more than we got last year.' Their expenses have gone up and so there were incremental increases in what they were doing and new programs," she said. "We've gone back and negotiated, I think, very fairly, saying we've asked other departments not to expand, not to bring in improved services and to try to keep it level and bring it down. They have responded by coming back. I don't think that the schools are being unreasonable when they are coming back with the $353,000."
Barowsky, however, retorted by saying, "There are contractual agreements that general government has to bear as well. Salary increases and [cost of living adjustment] agreements are because of their negotiations with their own unions. They should have been aware of what would happen when you give an overgenerous contract."
Clark kicked off the April 22 School Committee meeting by reading from a prepared a statement to the community that voiced his frustration with the Select Board's decision and his intention to stick by the agreement and present it at town meeting.
"When [Superintendent Marie Doyle] presented the FY14 budget, she delivered a budget that advanced our mission to allow each child to reach his or her full potential," he said. "In the subsequent weeks, the School Committee does what it always does. We met with members of the Select Board and members of the School Committee to demonstrate that we are making informed decisions in the best interest of the students, staff and the Longmeadow Community.
"When the Select Board voted to not increase our budget for the next fiscal year, we again did what we've always done. We reached out in the spirit of collegiality to seek a compromise," he continued.
He said that it was the understanding of representatives of both entities that each would support the outcome of the negotiations when presented to their respective committees and back the $353,000 increase.
While Santaniello said on April 16 that the negotiated figures did not represent an agreement or guarantee that the respective boards would accept them, Desrochers stated at the School Committee meeting that Santaniello did not negotiate in good faith and "reversed on what he said he would do."
"Paul made a commitment to us and to me and didn't come through with it," he said.
Desrochers told the School Committee that he was standing by the compromised number "not because it's the best number," but because "that is what we committed to."
Clark added that a zero percent budget increase would "decimate the district and invalidate the strategic investments we have made."
School Committee member John Fitzgerald criticized the Select Board's position on a zero percent budget.
"It was an arbitrary and capricious act of the Select Board demanding a zero percent budget, a figure that was just plucked out of the air," he said. "They offered no rational foundation for that decision. A week ago, Mr. Gold took the time to write a rather long essay, but it was after the fact and I thought it was a rather specious argument."
Select Board nominee Alex Grant also spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, supporting the notion of bringing the compromised figures to the town meeting floor, stating, among other things, that he believed residents would appreciate having options.
"Normally voters at Town Meeting have no choice," he said. "It has been my observation that voters want to have a choice because the budget choice that is normally presented is to approve the budget or to face chaos or disaster."