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School Committee wrestles with latest budget

Date: 4/19/2011

April 20, 2011

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Editor

AGAWAM — At the April 12 meeting, School Committee member Anthony Bonavita said that if he didn't get reelected, "so be it," he was going to do his job and support the latest version of the fiscal year 2012 (FY12) school department budget, personnel cuts and all.

"I'm not going to support a budget that can't be funded," he added.

His colleague, Linda Galarneau, questioned if anyone in the crowd of teachers, school professionals, parents and town residents that nearly filled the auditorium at the Roberta G. Doering School last Tuesday night "read the papers" and understood the current economic conditions after listening to supporter after supporter stand and argue for restoration of a level service school budget for FY12.

At one point Mayor Richard Cohen, who also chairs the School Committee, had to ask for order when the crowd reacted noisily to a comment by Galarneau that teachers — who are being asked to technically forgo a raise for a second year under this budget — were not the only employees in Western Massachusetts to see their paychecks stagnate.

Cohen explained to Reminder Publications earlier in the school budgeting cycle that in FY11, the teacher's union had taken step raise money intended for newer faculty and divided that sum equally among all of the department's teaching staff, providing everyone with a small raise.

In the end, School Committee Member Kathleen Mouneimneh was the lone dissenting vote, and the committee directed School Superintendent Dr. Mary Czajkowski to prepare FY12 budget booklets including the $1.6 million in cuts and 18.8 in position layoffs for public reading at its April 26 meeting.

The FY 12 budget outlined at the meeting reflects a total loss of 31.8 school department positions, including 13 vacancies created by retirements and positions that won't be filled. It also includes the first-ever fee structure for high school athletics, band and extra-curricular activities, and an increase in student parking rates.

"The reality is there's no money," Galarneau said. "The mayor has worked with us [on this budget] and if money comes down the pike [from the Legislature], he will give it to the schools, as he did last year."

Budget discussions sparked dissension not just from the audience but also among School Committee members, prompting Diane Juzba to at one point tell Galarneau "you have to respect other people's opinions as well as your own," as members sparred back and forth over whether Czajkowski's latest version of the budget had considered all possible reductions before eliminating teachers.

"I hate the thought that we start with the classroom and move up," Juzba said, acknowledging that the $1.6 million in reductions "had to be done."

Saying the budget had been "keeping her up at night" and acknowledging that, with only two weeks before the committee's final reading, the superintendent had to move forward to finalize the numbers, School Committee Member Shelley Reed lamented that economic realities forced Agawam to "cut what we do best."

"People come here for our schools and if we keep cutting, people won't come her anymore,' she said.

Her comment seemed to echo the sentiments of several of the citizens who stood to speak at the public comment part of the meeting.

Carol Reed, who brought to the meeting the petition she had drafted to State Sen, James Welch and State Rep. Nicholas Boldyga asking for their help securing more state education aid for the town, noted that a strong public school system was the most valuable resource a community could have.

"Education is how Massachusetts competes with other states," Reed said. "We don't have oil or a tropical climate."

She added the petition, which already had 730 signatures, would be available at the back of the room following the meeting.

Stacy Weiners, president of the Parent Teaches Organization at Benjamin J. Phelps School and counseling office secretary at Roberta G. Doering School, asked the committee if "the budget you are presenting to the City Council, with all its cuts, is fulfilling the mission of the School Department?"

As stated on the Agawam Public Schools Web site, the department's mission is "the pursuit of academics, performance, and success. Working in close partnership with parents and the community, our goal is to ensure that all students become life-long learners, critical thinkers, and socially responsible citizens, who contribute to a diverse society and embody its ideals."

Resident Jay Cameron questioned if the School Committee had looked at all possible areas of reduction critically enough before making the cuts presented.

"I don't feel we've been asking the hard questions to do the hard work and make the hard decisions," Cameron said. "I can't support a budget where the hard work of analyzing hasn't been done."

Czajkowski herself repeatedly asked for direction from the committee during discussion regarding alternative ways to handle the necessary budget cuts.

"To make these cuts, it's going to come from personnel," Czajkowski said. "I need direction as to what personnel; we've put forward a number of different personnel cuts [over the past few meetings]."

Czajkowski noted that the school department administration team and members of the School Committee had, since January, met seven times and developed multiple scenarios while attempting to draft a workable budget for FY12.

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