Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Schools Administrators Address Challenging Budget Questions

Ed Dypa decried the ever increasing education budget, and asked Gene Nocera, Patricia Charles, and Dan Drew when it would be held constant from one year to the next. He said that his pension was constant, and the relentless increase in taxes for the schools might force seniors like himself out of their homes.

Dypa's question came after a 30 minute presentation at the quarterly Westfield Residents Association meeting, by Superintendent Charles on the schools and the budget request.

Charles began by highlighting the challenges and the accomplishments of public education in our city. She said that the racial and economic diversity of the student population was both a strength and a challenge: 48% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, 56% enter school without having attended a quality pre-school, and up to 32% experienced food insecurity. By many measures, the schools are thriving: the High School was selected for the AP Honor Roll for increasing access to advanced placement courses, the High School chemistry team won the state Science Olympiad, the girls soccer team was undefeated in soccer, and the Woodrow Wilson Middle School won an award for sportsmanship.

Charles said that the Board's request for a 7% budget increase "is a large increase." She explained that 75% of the budget goes to salaries, which increase according to contracts, and benefits, which also have increased costs. Other factors behind the increase are costs for critical technology, state mandates for teacher certification and assessment, and tuition for students who attend magnet and charter schools.

Mayor Drew addressed Dypa's frustration at the increased budget. He acknowledged the inherent tension between the need to keep property taxes low, especially for those on a fixed income, and the need to cover the increasing costs for education. He said that this tension could be reduced if education funding were not based on property taxes, but instead came from a more progressive tax. Drew pointed to many steps that the city and the schools were taking to reduce expenses, including those for transportation, energy, legal services.

Dypa also complained that it was impossible to know how the schools were spending money, because the budget was not transparent, and there were unjustified transfers between different line items.

Nocera, the Chair of the Board of Education, addressed both of these concerns. He admitted that the education budget could not be displayed and integrated with the municipal budget because of technical reasons, but he said that the education budget was transparent, available to the public, and clear to the elected Board of Education members. He said line item transfers were rare, and were always presented at the public meetings of the Board of Education.

Drs. Charles and Nocera will reprise their presentation tonight at City Hall, when the Common Council holds a public hearing on the education budget. That meeting begins at 7PM.

The Council is required by statute to approve a final budget by May 15th.


Anonymous said...

Look at the BOE financial statements. They are still spending 12K a month in legal expenses. No savings there.

Justin Carbonella said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin Carbonella said...

Hi Stephen, Just to clarify, tonight is the first of 3 budget hearings held by the Common Council to inquire on budgets directly with each department head. The BOE is last on the agenda and the meeting starts at 6:30pm at City Hall.

There is a fourth hearing, which is the only one open for public comment, that is scheduled for April 30 with a 7pm start time.

(sorry spelled your name wrong in the initial comment)

Anonymous said...

Mr. Dypa asked very good legitimate questions- the author is very biased in writing that these were "complaints." Again, BOE gives unsatisfactory explainations.

Josh K. Mitchell said...

I think the elderly gentleman has a good point.

I grew up in Middletown. One of the many reasons I elected to leave when I became an adult is the high property tax rate. I have a friend who had home in Middletown, valued at roughly 200K. They paid as much in property taxes as I pay for my mortgage!

I couldn't afford to live in Middletown if I wanted to.

The author of this post correctly points out that many folks in M'town use social services. OK, they cited reduced lunches, etc, but same point. These cost money, so the taxes must be high. The thing is, once the taxes get to a certain point you scare off a lot of people paying into the system, leaving just those who collect. Then taxes have to get even higher and so on and so forth.