Monday, April 13, 2009

Will there be more cuts to the school budget?

Mayor Sebastian Giuliano has proposed a budget for the July 2009-June 2010 fiscal year that funds the school system at exactly the same level as this year. That's $69.3 million for the school district, which is $3.9 million (5.61%) less than the School Board says they would need to avoid any cuts in salaries or services, because of contracted increases over the current year.

It's a quirk of our town's system that the Common Council and the Mayor set the bottom line for how much money the school system will get, but the Board of Education has the decision-making power on how to spend it. In this budget season, it's been clear that the schools would not have the full 5.61% increase that they would need to avoid cuts. In spite of the fact that it appears likely that the state will give Middletown the same educational funding as last year (remember that flat funding means cuts), the city expects to receive significantly less state funding for other areas of the town budget, and so it has to dig deeper in making cuts and raising revenue, just to provide the schools with funding that equals this year.

In recognition of the current fiscal mood, the School Board proposed just a 2% increase at their March meeting, finding savings primarily by cutting 13 elementary teaching positions. But now that a 0% increase is on the table, it seems likely that more will have to be cut - in the Mayor's budget, that cut would equal another $1.37 million beyond what's already been cut.

The Mayor's proposed budget is not the final word -- it's the Common Council that formally adopts the city budget, and the Mayor's power at that point is restricted to breaking a 6/6 tie, or vetoing items that can withstand any effort to override. But the Mayor's budget is a statement that he believes that the schools can find more savings, and that they should, based on the overall situation in the city. The Mayor has made it clear that he thinks the savings can be found by re-opening negotiations with the unions, including teachers, paraprofessionals and administrators. The unions have also suggested cuts that might be made, although some of those were already made to achieve the 2% increase in the last round, such as cutting four "Pre-K to 12th grade" supervisors.

So what happens next?

•The Common Council is in the process of reviewing the Mayor's proposed budget. They will have a hearing at City Hall with the Superintendent and Board of Education (typically represented by the Chair) on Monday, April 20th at 6 pm. That's the forum where Council members question the school district about how they justify their funding request and where they might make additional cuts. The hearing will be open to the public but will not have any opportunity for public comment. It will also be available for viewing on Comcast Channel 19.

•The Board of Ed has their regular meeting on the next day, Tuesday, April 21, at 7 pm. In a recent conversation with Superintendent Michael Frechette, I understood that the Board would not typically propose additional cuts at this point. Instead, they would wait until the final budget is voted by the Common Council, as the bottom line can easily go up or down from the Mayor's proposal. On my part, I would be surprised if there wasn't some discussion of the options, as it comes on the heels of the hearing with the Council.

•On April 28th, beginning at 7 pm, the general public will be able to comment to the Common Council on all aspects of the city budget (not just schools) at City Hall. The Council has the power to add additional public hearings if they think there is a need.

•By charter, the Common Council is required to pass the final budget for the city by May 15th. The Mayor then has 5 days to veto, followed by 10 days that the Council would have to override a veto with a 2/3 vote (9 of 12 members).

•After May 15th, the Board of Ed will have to adjust their spending plan to whatever amount the Common Council provides. If the Mayor's cut holds, the Board of Ed would then have to find an additional $1.37 million in cuts.

Late May should be a busy time for the Superintendent and the Board of Ed, since in addition to revising their budget, they expect to receive the recommendations from JCJ Architecture about any short-term need to move students between schools. Any plans to cut teachers and change overall class size should be part of that calculation.


David Sauer said...

Excellent article, Jen.

One question (clarification?): You wrote

"It's a quirk of our town's system that the Common Council and the Mayor set the bottom line for how much money the school system will get, but the Board of Education has the decision-making power on how to spend it."

Do you know if this is a quirk unique to Middletown? I thought that this procedure was mandated by state law, and therefore not something that Middletown can change. Do you know if this system could be changed by the Council, or is it something that would have to be addressed at the state level (assuming we would want to do so). If we could change the system, do you think it would work better if the Council was given the power to set how the money allocated to the schools is spent? Am I reading too much into one sentence?

Anyway, an excellent article that clearly explains a rather complicated process that an awful lot of citizens don't really understand.

Stephen H. Devoto said...

It is completely a state law that gives control of spending but no power or responsibility for raising revenue to the board of ed. Other states, including NY, give the towns control over school budgets. CT's system may be designed for unified districts such as the Duham/Middlefield district. If the towns each had control over spending then some serious turf wars could erupt. In cities like ours, I don't understand the advantage of giving power of spending to a board that has no other expenses to worry over and has no accoutability to those (the council and mayor) who are responsible for raising revenue. The state should either take away the purse strings from the board, or give them the power and accountability of having to raise their own revenue through a school tax.

Anonymous said...

Based on what the majority of the council has been doing lately to ruin the cities finances I would be scared to let them have direct control over how money was spent within the school system. I'm sure Tom Serra's kid would get a nice raise though. The one advantage would be the board of ed couldn't use their scare tactics every year and say "Give us more money or we"ll shut down McDoughnagh School (sorry I'm sure I spelled that wrong hopefully the editor fixed it) and Keigwen. At least the council didn't fall for that last year.

Anonymous said...

On another note, what really bothers me is that teachers will have a pay freeze for next year but the superintendent gets a raise. Maybe the Board of Ed should consult with the administrators union about freezing everyone's salary.

Jen Alexander said...

Anonymous @ 10:16 - I hadn't heard that teacher salaries were frozen - was that part of an earlier union contract? I think the current budget proposal (the one the Board passed in early March) has a "contracted increase" for teachers. Please write back if you think that's not correct!


-Jen Alexander

Jen Alexander said...

David, That's a good question and I hope that Stephen answered it - also, I'm going to look into a bit more. I know it's a pet peeve of City Hall that the Board of Ed gets to vote on how to spend money but is insulated from having to raise taxes and face voter wrath.


Anonymous said...

7:53 It is a step freeze. So there is an increase in salary but teachers are not moving up a step which negates the increase for some. It was negotiated under the new contract, effective July 2009. The salary scale will be renegotiated during the 2009-2010 school year. This is how I understand it but have not seen the actual new contract yet. Someone please correct me if I am wrong.

Anonymous said...

I understand it to be a step freeze which is tied to years in service. Middletown teachers are still to receive annual COLA increase July 1. Why anyone is receiving a raise this year? I'm not are you? The CPI is in negitive territory. The question should be asked. The approved BOE Budget includes a general wage increase its in black in white. Show me a budget document that show diffrent and I will stand corrected.

Anonymous said...

Its the BOE Administrators, including the superintendent- getting raises when every single other union was asked to make cut backs to come under budget- Why was every other worker forced to make sacrifices and the BOE Admin given special incentives?