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Councilors make last-minute move on budget

Date: 6/28/2011

June 29, 2011

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Editor

AGAWAM — It was a last-minute move, but the result was a boon for the town’s schools and its students.

The City Council was more than four hours into its discussion of Mayor Richard Cohen’s proposed fiscal year 2012 (FY12) $73.5 million operating budget — with no easy answers on how to reconcile councilor concern over rising salaries and contract negotiations, public concern about School Department layoffs and increased class sizes and the realities of reduced operating revenues — on June 20 when City Councilor Gina Letellier made a radical suggestion.

She proposed — and the council accepted — an amendment to the FY12 budget that cut $250,000 from the town’s $500,000 reserve fund, with the caveat that Cohen returns that money to the School Department budget for use in restoring positions.

“When I heard [Councilor Letellier’s suggestion] I thought it was an idea and, based on my concern for class size, asked the City Council to go into committee and discuss it as a whole,” Cohen said, adding he told the council he would agree to move the money to the School Department budget if the council limited this year’s budget cuts to that single change.

The amendment passed by a vote of 11-0 at 11:20 p.m., and the council returned the budget to Cohen. He must now submit a supplemental budget for their approval before September. He said he hopes to have the supplemental budget ready for council approval at its July 5 meeting.

Cohen said he met with School Superintendent Dr. Mary Czajkowski on June 21 to begin discussing how to use the budget adjustment to save positions. He also notified all town department heads that day that they would “have to live within the means of the budget for FY12.

“If it comes down to a new dump truck or a child’s education ... I made the choice to fund our children’s education and their future,” Cohen said.

Czajkowski told Reminder Publications that by shifting money from the town’s reserves back into the school budget, she expects to be able to restore 11 of the 31.8 school department positions cut under the level-funded FY12 school budget she had submitted.

“What I’m most grateful for that night at the City Council meeting [is] that the council listened to our concerns and addressed our needs,” Czajkowski said. “To be able to put back $250,000 to the school budget ... kudos to them and their willingness to, in this time of very tight financial situations, to be able to reinstate that money.”

At the School Committee meeting slated for June 28, Czajkowski said she would be asking the committee to reinstate the following positions: a first grade teacher at Clifford M. Granger School, reducing class size from 26 to 17; a kindergarten teacher, a paraprofessional and a kindergarten paraprofessional at Robinson Park School, reducing class size from 25 to 19; and a teacher, a kindergarten teacher and a paraprofessional at Benjamin J. Phelps School, reducing class size from 24 to 18. In addition, she will be requesting that one position at the Early Childhood Center be reinstated, two district-wide paraprofessionals to work with Individual Education Plans be reinstated, and the school resource officer be reinstated at Agawam High School.

“That was done with a cooperative agreement with the Police Department,” Czajkowski said of the resource officer position. “We are going to cover approximately 50 percent of the officer’s salary.”

Czajkowski said the police chief has agreed to fund the other 50 percent of the officer’s salary, a compromise for which she is very grateful.

Czajkowski is also hoping to be able to reinstate two of the secretarial positions. One position would fill a current vacancy at Granger, the other would involve a new position in the before- and after-school programs that would assist the director.

“There was a lot of discussion of the before- and after-school programs, that they have a healthy [cash] reserve,” Czajkowski said, referring to Letellier’s query regarding the use of those funds to reinstate positions. “One of the things we are looking to do is to create a full-time secretarial position for fee collection [for these programs].”

She said the before- and after-school program director currently handles this time-consuming duty, and moving the responsibility to a secretary would free the director up to spend more time with curriculum and site visits. The new secretary would also be responsible for collecting and tracking the new user fees imposed on students in the higher grades. As funding for this proposed position would be drawn from the before- and after-school budget, Czajkowski said there would be no further impact on the School Department budget as amended.

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