Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Board of Education Discusses School Budget Cuts

During the public session at the Board of Education Tuesday the discussion of the Superintendent's proposed budget began as residents and teachers spoke in favor of adopting the budget.

Middletown Federation of Teachers president Janice Pawlak spoke first, urging the Board to adopt the budget as requested by the Superintendent. She was followed by this author, who made the same request, describing the budget adoption discussions as a process, and urging the Board not to make preemptive cuts in an attempt to placate the mayor or Common Council.  This author also reminded the Board that quality of schools is affected by an appropriate budget, and quality of schools has a notable effect of property values.

Middletown High School English teacher Chris Darby praised Superintendent Charles, and cited the progress that has been made in the district.  He also noted ways in which budget curtailments have put Middletown students at risk.

"Without additional staff at the high school, we are in danger of being able to offer enough classes for our students to graduate," Darby said referring to new elevated state standards for credits to graduate.

"It boggles my mind that we don't have full-time librarians at the middle schools," Darby added.

Parents Carolyn Oakes May and Brian Kaskel also urged the board to pass the superintendent's budget.  Kaskel cited the process, reminding the board that the Common Council was likely to cut any budget presented to it, whether the board trimmed the budget prior to its submission to the mayor or not.

"Why give them a lower starting point," Kaskel said.  "They're likely to cut it anyway."

Representing the Middletown High School Athletic Booster club, Anthony Fazzino urged the Board to refrain from cutting budget items that would affect the sports programs in Middletown schools

Budget concerns continued to emerge throughout the meeting with Board member Linda Szynkowicz requested information of any income realized by the district, and to get an understanding of how and where grant dollars are spent.

In addition, Board chair Vinnie Loffredo asked for time to study the bid process for all school vendors.  He cited a longstanding contract with Dattco Bus company which, Loffredo claimed, locked the district into 5% annual increases for 5 years.

Superintendent Charles corrected Loffredo and said that annual increases were in the 3.5% range.

When budget discussion began in earnest, Charles indicated that she had lowered her original request of a 9% increase down to a 7.5% increase.  However, as she ticked through potential savings, and duplications in funding, it was clear that she had instructed staff to find savings that would allow the district to function, in the upcoming year, with an increase closer to 5.5%.

Board member Chris Drake asked for clarification, noting that many of the line items on the list of budget cuts, were items which had already been declared duplications, or areas of real savings in the upcoming year.

Szykowicz called on her colleagues to limit discussions to actual savings and to allow the superintendent to present a realistic budget to the Board, which they would then pass onto the Common Council.

"I don't believe we should be looking at cuts which affects programs and people," she said.  "Every one of these things affects some person.  These are people's lives we're talking about.  It's an exercise that I don't think is necessary."

When cuts on the Superintendent's list began to affect programs and personnel, Board member Cheryl McClellan indicated that the cuts were beginning to cause pain.

"I'm at the point where I want it to stop," McClellan said.  "This is a number we should bring to the Council."

Loffredo indicated that the cut list was a necessary exercise to find savings, and to begin to see where cuts might affect programs and personnel.  Charles indicated that coming up with a firm number was "a moving target," early in the year, and that in the weeks leading up to the March deadline for submitting the budget, more savings might be found.

Among those savings to be examined are additional shared services with the city, and potential re-use of bonded dollars for capital expenditures that had been closed out.

Drake indicated that he would like the city to consider help with the upcoming negotiation of the para contract.

NOTE: In an item unrelated to budget, the Board voted to begin all upcoming meetings at 6:30 PM.

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