(A commentary by Brian Kaskel)
The Board of Education held a Budget Workshop this past Tuesday. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into it – and after leaving I am not surprised. The “Workshop” was not a workshop at all, but rather a public forum allowing the different departments throughout the district to put in a request for their share of the budget pie. All board members were in attendance, as was Superintendent Patricia Charles, Assistant Superintendent Enza Macri, and a bevy of other staff members, Principals and department heads.
The meeting was as expected, a plea from each department on how they wanted Dr. Charles to spend the soon to be allocated budget. More importantly, it helped both Dr. Charles and the Board to better understand how much money to ask from the city. The Athletic department was represented and they are asking to be brought back to 2012 levels of spending. There was a request from the Technology department for the board to consider more staff and supplies to keep the district’s technology position moving forward, especially because of the new state testing requirements. Transportation was looking to add to its fleet of busses in order to create a safer environment for students and drivers on certain routes. There is also a contractual requirement of a 5% increase due to DATTCO for the 2014/15 school year. The Buildings/Facilities department spoke to things that they felt needed to be done based on a sliding scale of priority. There was extra time in the night’s agenda to open the discussion on how the “power of Sodexo” has helped the district financially in addition to other ancillary benefits.
Of course the Principals had staffing needs based on the grade level they were there to represent. There was an agreement amongst the school level administrators that class sizes need to be kept in check, as well as offering social services on a more manageable level. There is a need for classroom teachers at the elementary level and special elective teachers at the high school level (to make us more competitive with other districts and magnet schools). Interventionists are an affordable solution and there appears to be a drastic need for more Social Services case managers – as the need for social work or even school psychiatry is on the rise year after year. Ms. Macri discussed the curriculum and professional development needs and costs moving forward, and the Special Education requests seemed to make sense as a short term / long term plan to save the district money based on state mandates.
Board of Education new comers, Vincent (Vinnie) Loffredo and Linda Szynkowicz were most vocal with questions regarding the Alliance Grant (more on that later), transportation bids and technology leases. Unfortunately, although this was a public forum, there was not room on the agenda for the public to ask questions nor throw support in any one direction. Also because of the formality of the meeting, neither I, nor anyone else was able to question the amount of the budget and/or how it was being spent on administration at Hunting Hill (BOE). Not that there aren’t valid reasons for how that money is being spent, but it would be nice to review. It was determined, as a general consensus, that not all requests will be granted, and that the superintendent’s requested dollar figure will more than likely not be met by the city. Dr. Charles said that, “we have been informed that the city is trying hard just to do what they did last year” and implied that it would not be an easy task.
Speaking of last year, now is a good time to talk about that Alliance grant and how it is becoming more clear that the City is using the grant as an opportunity to “borrow from Peter to pay Paul” as was suggested at the meeting. This “shell game” was apparently so repulsive to Mr. Loffredo I thought he was going to storm over to City Hall right then and there. This further supports my theory that politics has no place in education. If Mr. Loffredo, a seasoned Democrat, is willing to get this upset at his party for the decisions made – then maybe we do have a fighting chance!
As an Alliance District, the Board of Education has to apply for funds from the State of Connecticut’s Alliance Grant. The State then filters the awarded amount through the City on behalf of the Board of Education. 100% of the Alliance funds have to be disbursed to the Board of Education to be used on the items specified in their Grant Application. However, the City is allowed to use a “considerable majority” to offset their required allocation to the Board of Education. The City is required to give the Board no less than what was given the year prior. A “considerable majority” is to be determined by the municipality. It our case, the brain trust that was the common council/mayor (circa 2013) decided that 51% is a “considerable majority”.
Here is the breakdown:
2013-14 Alliance Grant was for $1,964,722. The City agreed to give the BOE an increase in the annual budget of $1,955,914, of which a “considerable majority” was paid for via the Alliance Grant. So, rather than offering the BOE an additional $1,955,914 PLUS all or most of the Alliance Grant, they used the grant to offset their allocation and thus entered into a game of smoke and mirrors.
The spirit of the Alliance Grant is to have the funds used in addition to any increase the City would have offered, yet nearly half of the increase the city agreed to give the Board of Education, was paid for with these funds.
Looking ahead to 2014-15, in order to handle all of the unfunded state mandates and to fund the system as it is today, Dr. Charles, at the time of writing this, intends to ask the City for a 5.81% increase PLUS 72% of this year’s Alliance Grant which is expected to be $3,138,691.
So yes, it is an uphill battle and a battle that needs to be fought on two fronts and with everything we have. Battle one – a fight for the money. Battle two – figuring out the best way to spend what we do get. I encourage like minded parents, students, staff and citizens of Middletown to come together and do whatever they can to get the message across. We are a community with an educational system sorely at risk. If the Board of Education continues to be underfunded at these levels we will certainly lose ground and become even less appealing. When the appeal goes away, so do the residents. Lower performing schools result in lower home values. Lower home values equal higher tax rates to make up for lost revenue. As I have said before, we need to fund the schools, but not by causing additional burdens to the tax payers of Middletown. It is time to make hard decisions, maybe put off some of the downtown revival ideas, and spend that money on the schools. I am a ready and willing body to open the books and take a second look. I am sure the money is there. Who’s with me?
(Brian Kaskel is a Middletown Parent and former candidate for the Board of Education)