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School budget increased after lengthy debate

Date: 5/9/2013

By Chris Maza


LONGMEADOW — A budget discussion devolved into absurdity at the May 7 Annual Town Meeting before voters ultimately supported a fiscal year 2014 budget of $57.5 million.

The debate lasted longer than 90 minutes — and included three separate proposed amendments, including a facetious budget adjustment proposal of $2.5 million for the schools, and a minor non-voting member of the public being allowed to speak despite a point of order objection by another resident, and residents leaving prior to the budget being ratified — before citizens approved a budget that included an increase of the School Department's line item equaling $353,000 more than the Select Board's recommendation.

Town Manager Stephen Crane presented the Select Board's proposed budget with illustrated figures on multiple large screens, which featured zero percent increases for both general government departments and the School Department. He also stated that the Select Board was making a concerted effort to focus on the "backlog of capital projects" with the budget.

School Committee Chair Michael Clark then proceeded to propose an amendment on the floor that asked for the $353,000 increase, a dollar amount that represented half of the initial increase the School Department previously asked for.

Representatives of the School Committee and the Select Board agreed to bring that figure before their respective governing bodies when negotiations were struck after a $726,000 difference between their proposals was identified during the budgeting process; however, the Select Board voted 3-2 not to approve the compromise, prompting the School Committee to bring the amendment on the Town Meeting floor.

Longmeadow Public Schools Superintendent Marie Doyle told residents in her own presentation that included figures as well as photos of students and teachers, "A zero-funded budget would bring painful cuts," including two high school teachers, a middle school social studies teacher which would bump average class sizes to 28 students — reading assistants at two schools, elementary instrumental music, a reduction in professional development, and $73,000 in additional unidentified cuts.

She explained that the School Department had identified $875,060 in mandatory increases, including cost of living adjustments and salary step increases that had been negotiated with the teachers' union. In total, the department found $1.4 million in line items they wished to fund, but whittled that number down to $706,000. When the Select Board balked at that figure, they agreed to lower the request to $353,000, she said.

Selectman Richard Foster spoke out against the amendment, citing "terrible challenges in front of us" regarding spending and capital projects and the schools' request was not in line with what other departments had been asked to do. "The only thing I've asked for, ever since I was part of the Capital Planning Committee, is balance," he said.

Finance Committee member Richard Liasse was also among those who said he would not support the additional money.

"If we had the money, I would think the plans the School Department has would be great and I would like to fund them all. But the fact of the matter is we don't have the money," he said, adding that while some members of the community could be considered among the "uber-rich," there are many residents struggling to get by with the high taxes they are already expected to pay.

Alex Grant, candidate for Select Board, spoke favorably of the amendment and criticized the Select Board for its budgeting practices.

"I am in favor of this amendment and I don't think it's fair that we've been put in this position. I wish we could send the Select Board back to the drawing board," he said, calling the board's budgeting procedure a "flawed policy choice."

Grant went on to say that while Crane had alluded that the town had a capital plan, former Acting Town Manager Barry Del Castilho said at the town's budget forum that one did not exist and The Reminder had reported the same. "There is no capital plan. People who went to the town budget forum heard something very different than what we've been presented with tonight," he said.

A junior member of the high school's symphony orchestra also got up to speak as one of several members of the community intent on saving the elementary music program, but another resident objected to her participation because she was not a voting member of the community. Town Moderator Michael Kallock ignored the objection and allowed her to speak.

Voters then approved the amendment; at which time a large portion of the meeting participants began filing out without having approved an actual budget.

Resident Jessica Hutchins, who had also spoken in favor of the amendment, then got up and proposed a second amendment to the budget that would allow the School Department to be funded at the level they had initially requested with a $706,000 increase.

"This is still $700,000 less than what they need to run the schools," she said, referencing Doyle's figure of $1.4 million in identified needs. "[The proposed $706,000] increase represents the minimum they would need to get through the school year."

Select Board Vice Chair Mark Gold, who voted in favor of the $353,000 increase, said he would not support any additional monies because Hutchins' proposal didn't include any identified funding sources.

"To increase funding by another $353,000 without identified funding sources would mean the Select Board would have to go back and make cuts to other programs like possibly the Adult Center and the library," he said. "If we want to talk about additional money, I would suggest we vote on a [Proposition] 2 ½ override. Passing this amendment would not be a responsible act by this legislative body and we should think long and hard before doing this."

Clark also said he would continue to support the original amendment.

Resident Bryan Gustafson stood up and mockingly proposed an amendment to Hutchins' amendment, requesting an increase of $2.5 million to the budget, citing needs at the Center School playground, and the math department deserving to "be awarded at least $1 million" to ensure its continued success. He also mocked the possibility of the layoff of three employees.

"When I was a business leader and had the responsibility of 32,000 employees, I know what it's like when you have to lay off a couple of hundred associates. That was a bummer, so, God forbid, I don't want to lay off two or three people," he said.

Gustafson's amendment was defeated, followed by Hutchins'. The town then voted to approve the budget, at which time more than half of the participants made their way to the exits as the meeting continued to address the remaining 23 articles.