This author is a proud parent advocate in the City of Middletown. This is my first attempt at a journalistic approach to the facts - this is not intended to be an opinion piece. Though it should be said that I do support the schools. #standingwithpat
Last night Superintendent Dr. Patricia Charles "took the stand" in the annual budget hearing that requires all city departments to partake in an interview of sorts, where the Common Council has the opportunity to seek out clarity around certain projected city expenditures. In an evening that saw testimonies by Mayor Daniel Drew, the City's Finance Departments, Assessor's Department, Clerk's Office, Police, Fire, and others it quickly became a long night.
At approximately 9:30pm, Dr. Charles, flanked by Associate Superintendent Dr. Enza Macri, BOE Chair Vincent Loffredo, Manager of Finance Linda McPherson, and Finance Sub Committee Chair and Board Member Christopher Drake set up shop at a table reserved for three. As a back drop to these individuals was a supporting cast of three additional Board of Education members, and a large handful of teachers and parents.
The line of questioning began with Councilman Daley, first trying to see if Dr. Charles had any insight as to how the "public divisiveness has created an 'Education against the City' mentality" at which Dr. Charles offered both acknowledgement of the Councilman's opinion and an opinion of her own citing a public who is both supportive and passionate towards the subject of education. Daley moved on to discuss his two hot buttons, comparative data and the use of purchase services such as ESS, BUBA, and especially transportation. It was agreed by both Charles and Macri that there could be savings explored if the Board and City team up together on some items, including but not limited to fuel costs. Dr. Macri explained that there could be some savings but costs would not be removed completely as many of programs are required but yet unfunded by the state. Daley understood that notion. Daley as aforementioned also wanted to point out that data from four of five years ago suggested that our costs per pupil spending was similar to those towns with a similar bond rating as Middletown. Which was countered with the fact that most of those town do not have the same needs on a socioeconomic level as Middletown.
Not to be out-done, Councilman Tom Serra, who has "been through 25 city budgets" and is "quite frankly annoyed with the public". (A point the councilman was clear to point out, numerous times) The Majority leader went on to say he is not a fan of the "conflictual nature" that the public brings with them to the council meetings. After getting that off his chest, he did express a willingness to work with his Caucus to avoid lay-offs. He then peppered both Charles, Macri and Lofredo with a series of questions and requested the Board commit to him and the Council that if they get an additional $818,986 (the cost of the 15 lay-offs) then Dr. Charles would not lay anyone off. That commitment would not be made - as it is more complicated than just saying that. "There are positions we want to save" said Macri "but there are also positions we need to create based on need and State requirement, as well as many Para's and Custodial staff." "We will look at class sizes and make-up and then assess where the need is greatest, and of course we want to save all of our teachers" Charles concluded. This did not appear to satisfy Serra as he yielded the floor temporarily.
Councilman Chisem, was shorter in his request. He wanted to know if Sodexo is truly saving the district money even though the board is paying taxes on some of these services. It was explained that the BOE is still waiting on some financial summaries from Sodexo which they have been promised to have by the next Board Meeting in May
Councilwoman Bartolotta, admittedly has been "digging in deep" on this year's Board of Education proposal and has also been looking at why we were not getting the same results as the other towns in previous mentioned lists. It was her assessment that 50 -51% of the cities student age children are "in need". Earlier in the night a slide had been presented that 47% of the students qualified for free and reduced lunch which is up 14.5% in the last 10 years, and that the English Language Literacy segment (ELL - English as a second language) is now up 56% in the last 10 years. Bartolotta was in agreement with Christopher Drake's encouragement to look at our District Reference Group (DRG) rather than towns with a similar bond rating. "Our town is just different" said Bartolotta "what and how we spend our money will have different results" Bartolotta went on to say that just like all the departments who spoke earlier in the night "numbers can be made to say anything" and she will continue to "seriously consider the Board's request"
After the second 10-minute recess of the night, Councilman Robert Blanchard in his first year on the council, proved to those in attendance that he "gets it" He recalled comments from Dr. Macri from a previous meeting where in summary she had said "you reach a point when you continue to inadequately fund the school system that they fall into a hole that is impossible to climb out of. This is the same effect in regards to real estate and the grand list that that Christopher Drake eluded to last week. Councilman Blanchard went on to ask what is the number to not only save the teachers but avoid falling off the cliff. Before given a chance to answer, Councilman Serra stole the floor back and reiterated the request to have a "Guarantee by the board" which again was not given. When Councilman Blanchard successfully retrieved the floor he notated a complete understanding as to why the guarantee could not be made but would still like to know the approximate number and where dust can settle. It was concluded with some shuffling and re-prioritizing, and through some potential savings that could still be reviewed an increase to of nearly 2.4 million seemed to make sense.
Former BOE Chairman and Current Councilman Gene Nocera, a known advocate for the schools, felt it was important that regardless of the number, "in this difficult year the Caucuses need to find revenue to prevent lay-offs and improve the schools" Dr. Nocera also stressed in response to Bartolotta and Drake that we remember to look at Middletown as what is is, an Alliance district and to "compare Middletown to all of the 30 alliance districts in the state" That is was imperative that the members of the council "while in their caucus, take serious steps towards approving a better number so we were not (funding at an) average within the Alliance district." Nocera through first hand experience acknowledged that Dr. Charles and the board have made great strides over the past few years to improve relationships with the Council and that relationship is "built on transparency"
Councilman Sebastian Giuliano, another former Mayor, was the first of three Republicans to offer comment. Welcoming us to the "new normal" which was sure to last for at least the next ten years. He offered to the board that they explore paying for classified salaries on the City side - and although this wouldn't change the bottom line, because of things like a salary reserve - it may open up a percent or two increase for the board. Dr. Charles welcomed a conversation on this idea and even potentially looking at sharing legal costs.
The remaining council members (with the exception of Councilwoman Salafia) as the clock drew closer to midnight, legally the latest the meeting could go, echoed many of the earlier comments with an emphasis on digging deep on purchase services, like Sodexo and Datco.
A call for adjournment was made and seconded. 11:53pm
The next opportunity for the public to speak or annoy them (opinion) regarding any aspect of the budget is on April 28th at 7pm in the council chambers.