Tonight's Board of Ed budget meeting had me humming the closing number from a recent Broadway musical *. The song says "we've all got a little more homework to do", and that about sums up the condition of our local school budget.
At the December Board meeting, Superintendent Michael Frechette offered a 2009-2010 school budget of $73,235,856 -- that's what it would take to provide the same level of services as the current year. But with contracted increases, the cost will be $3.8 million higher than it is this year. And with the State warning us to expect at least $2 million less in school funding, that leaves something like a $6 million gap.
Last month, Frechette asked the Board to give him direction at this month's meeting -- would they like to see him prepare a budget with a lower increase? That would mean coming up with a list of cuts that he would then bring to the various interest groups and PTA's in town to gauge their resistance or support.
Instead, the Board decided they weren't ready to support a specific budget yet -- and weren't even sure if they were looking to reduce the 5.61 % increase that Frechette proposed in December. Members of both parties spoke about how they wanted to know if there was any hope of getting concessions from the teachers union, which meets with the administration this week. Sally Boske noted that she wanted to be able to "look voters in the eye" and tell them that the Board had really looked at every item, and there were no easy cuts to be made.
Before the Board's budget session, there was a public hearing where a few citizens got up and made suggestions about how to think about cutting the budget. Parent and educator Deborah Kleckowski dangled the attractive suggestion of bailing out of No Child Left Behind -- she stated that "no district is required to participate". Later comments among the Board members made it clear that opting out of the much-reviled NCLB would cost Middletown a significant amount of Title One funding (about $900,000), which is the Federal program for communities with high numbers in the free lunch program (like Middletown). And then there are grants and in-kind support from the State which we would stand to lose. Unfortunately, the Board did not discuss the other side of the equation, which would be to ask how much the school budget might save if it did not have to comply with NCLB requirements. At any rate, it did not sound like Middletown will abandon NCLB on its own. Kleckowski also made the suggestion of offering an accelerated 3-year high school option, which could provide savings to the district, depending on how many students were eligible. Although there was some interest in this idea, it was agreed that it would need much more study and would not solve any budget problems within the next year or so.
Izzi Greenberg did a little preemptive lobbying and asked the School Board not to consider closing Macdonough School, as they did last year when facing a budget crunch. My own read on this is that the Board will be looking to Macdonough to ease some of the crowding at Moody School, which currently has a large number of North End kids who are bused across town to ease the racial imbalance problem in our schools. Therefore, I don't think we'll be on the block this year -- though we will likely see an increase in students (which is fine with me, as long as Macdonough is given the teachers and resources to cope with the new kids!)
Matt Pugliese, the new Managing Director at Oddfellows Playhouse, spoke up for arts enrichment programs for kids. And I got up and spoke in favor of cutting the transportation budget before cutting educational services. I know this is a hot button issue -- more than one Board member slid down a bit in their seats while I spoke. Last year, they faced a lot of opposition when they cut about 100 bus stops out of the previous routes to save money. But I still think that there might be room in that $5.5 million "Transportation" line item for some cuts. How about city bus passes for high school kids? What about expanding the "walking" radius around schools, giving families close to the school the option to "buy in" to the school bus route. What about accelerating the plan to re-district, so that more kids could go to the school closest to their house? Wouldn't those be better options than raising class sizes across the board? Or cutting all the frills out of our kids' education?
But I digress.
A few other options for cuts came up in the discussion. Sheila Daniels asked Frechette to be sure that a new level of frugality was being applied -- for example, are the thermostats turned down at night? She noted that we are all making these changes in our own lives, and the Board should run the schools the same way. Frechette will be presenting a list in the coming months of current cost-saving measures. And although Chairman Ted Raczka said that he had come up with a list of $347,000 in cuts, he said that from his perspective, "we need to preserve class size and quality of education" and that people need to come out and lobby if they want to see the Common Council support more funding for education.
As the meeting was wrapping up after just one hour, new Board Member Renee Johnson-Thornton jumped in to say that she was concerned that the Board was not taking the time to state what their goals were, so that they were "not just looking at the numbers, but remembering what we are trying to do for our kids." Other Board members noted that there is an official list of goals, but that it is not prioritized. Corinne Gill noted that their hands are tied on many items, due to mandates or contracts, but that they should go through any items that are discretionary and name their top one or two priorities. Just before the motion to adjourn, Renee said "It doesn't make any sense to me that we can walk out of this room and come back in a few weeks and make good decisions about what to cut." The Board seemed to agree that the next meeting will start with some prioritizing. And hopefully, the Board members will be meeting in their caucuses and committees to develop some contingency plans in case the Common Council refuses to increase local educational funding by $6 million. Which seems entirely possible, doesn't it?
*If you're shopping for a Middletown budget theme song, you can click here to listen to the song. The musical called "13" by Jason Robert Brown tells the story of a boy who turns 13 while trying to figure out who he is and how to tell right from wrong. Sadly, the show, which rose from the Goodspeed in East Haddam all the way to a Broadway opening last September, fell victim to the terrible economy and closed last week.