While the crowd was very small in number, Raczka relished the opportunity to be back in Westfield, and he spoke openly and honestly about the 2011-2012 School Budget and other challenges to education in Middletown.
As he began, Raczka summarized where Middletown is today by recalling a December 2007 Board of Ed meeting where Middletown was notified by the State Department of Education that it was a failing school system. Unless Middletown "partnered" with the State to create an improvement plan, the State BOE would disband Middletown's Board of Ed and run the school district from the state level.
A Cambridge Group Study was then funded by the State, and a number of improvement areas were identified. "The staff has often found these recommendations difficult...and so did parents," Raczka commented, "but our District has had three years of significant improvement and now we're the only district out of 15 to achieve a 'Safe Harbor' designation." This means Middletown is no longer in danger of state intervention.
During the time the Board of Education and the Superintendent have been under obligation to the state to develop an improvement plan, severe budget restrictions have also been a part of the landscape. Superintendent Michael Frechette commented, "we're the only town in Middlesex County to have a 0% budget increase last year, and the year before that, it was only a $200,000 increase in a budget of almost $70 million."
"Education is a promise we've made to our children," Raczka noted, "and you just can't get around the fact that it's expensive....We've looked at saving money every way that we can. We've reduced staff and the size of the central office and yet we've still improved on academics."
To those without kids in the school system (older parents or even senior citizens), Raczka had this challenge: "Unless we make a commitment to have good schools, we're shooting ourselves in the foot for protecting our property values. If you want to protect the value of your home, you have to invest in education in this town."
On the specific subject of the 2011-2012 Budget, Raczka pointed to the State as most of the reason the board is asking for a 7.1% increase over last year's budget. Last year, Middletown received almost $4 million in Federal Stimulus Funds, but this money came instead of money the state was supposed to provide as part of its obligated Education Cost Sharing (ECS) funds. If the State can pick up the gap left by the stimulus funds, the BOE is only asking for a 3.4% budget increase. Raczka pointed out that almost 90% of the BOE Budget is contractually determined: salaries account for about 88% and the bus contract is about 2%. "We can't cut any more administrators because then we'd have schools without principals, and we can't cut teachers because then we'll have 25-28 kids in each class....From my perspective, we have to support our schools first and then other stuff second."
The questions that came from the audience focused on the public's perception of the BOE and how it operates:
- "How does the budget process work?"
- "Does the BOE itemize its budget? How can we see it?"
- "Where is the money going to come from for this budget...are you going to bleed us to death?"
- "It seems like there is a big black wall around you and no one can see around you. Why is there a lack of transparency?"
- "Why aren't BOE members and Administrators more visible at school events?"
Raczka answered each question in turn, noting that the website for the school district has all budget and calendar information readily available. He also noted that the District is so large and BOE members are so busy with committee meetings and other BOE issues that it's hard to get to everything.
Raczka also pointed out that as an urban school district, Middletown has concerns that more upscale towns don't: "We have more reduced/free lunches to pay for as well as ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction. It's just more expensive to educate a poorer population, and we're also asked to do all things for all people. We also have to provide a challenge to kids at the upper end of the system, so it just makes everything more expensive."
Superintendent Michael Frechette offered two points: first, the BOE hasn't been responsible for any tax raises in the last 2 years because of the 0% increase budget (and much of this was due to contractual negotiations that suspended wage increases), and second, Middletown won a budgeting award two years ago that only 24 districts in the whole country have received. This award was for transparency and "ease of read" in the actual budget presentation.
As the Q&A session came to a close, BOE Chairman Ted Raczka was told that Middletown residents have a basic mistrust of city officials and the BOE, and that more has to be done to keep citizens informed of what's going on. Several attendees encouraged the BOE to look for places to publicize what its activities are beyond telecasting meetings on Comcast Channel 19 (one suggestion was a monthly article in The Chronicle).
"I love being on the board...it's my passion," Raczka said, ""We need to hear from folks in an honest, productive fashion, and it doesn't have to be at the public session at a BOE meeting. We do try to listen, but it's just incredibly complicated these days. Our staff spends way to much time filling out paperwork to send to Hartford and Washington...if you want to see a change made, talk to your State and Federal Officials about the burdens they place on the local system that makes it impossible to get anything accomplished."
The Westfield Residents Association thanks BOE Chairman Ted Raczka and Superintendent Michael Frechette for their open and informative comments. Thank you also to BOE Member Sheila Daniels for attending the meeting.