Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Serra: I am annoyed with the Public

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. 


Conshr said...

Maybe Councilman Serra doesn't realize he is supposed to support the public that is annoying him. Maybe he needs to be released of his annoying duties as a council member. He is not doing anyone any favors by making these type of expressions to the public that he represents.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for funding public education. I don't mind paying more in taxes to support education. But when other Alliance Districts pay their superintendents far less than Middletown (including East Hartford, Bridgeport, Manchester, Windsor Locks, Norwich), have had far less increases in their budgets than Middletown is asking for (including Bloomfield, Manchester, East Hartford), and many of them advancing student outcomes, I have a hard time justifying the rather large increases the BOE insists has to happen.

Steve Smith said...

By asking for a commitment of no layoffs if the BOE budget gets an additional $818,986 -- a 117% increase in the Mayor's budget, is councilman Serra proposing that the council would provide those funds if given the commitment? If so, I wish that Pat had called his bluff.

Steve Smith

Steve LaRosa said...

I find this whole situation amusing. Board requests, Mayor cuts, Board lays off 15 teachers, blames City. City says if we fund the money for the positions, Board says it's more complicated. I'm no fan of this administration, so I get the anger. But for the parents to buy the garbage the politicos on the Board deal out is beyond belief. I agree, lets fully fund the schools, make education a priority, but let's do it on a line item budget and give the board power to move up to 10 percent within the lines without City approval. Wait, that would be illegal thru the State's rules on education funding. So let's just get a line item budget from the Board. Wait, we can't do that either, because then we'd actually see what they needed and how funding actually trickles down to our children.

Councilman Serra asked a legitimate question that no one on Huntinghill avenue can answer. If the funding for teachers is restored, can they get a no layoff guarantee. Seems pretty simple, especially in the world of politics. But again, we see the dance between political bodies who struggle for power daily. Who has the fiduciary responsibility to us, the taxpayers. It's not the board of education, I am very confident of that. If you want more money, justify why you need it thru making a case instead of just saying hey, it's for the kids. I'm pretty sure those degrees have to be worth more than just the paper they are printed on.

I'm an advocate to fund our schools at the highest levels. Education is the key to our communities health, welfare, and desirability to live. So please don't tell me I don't support them. I have three daughters who have a wonderful education from our system.

Bill Wilson said...

I would like to see a line item budget for BOE like we can on the city side. I know they have the new software to be more transparent. Why can't we the taxpayers see a line item budget? That is my question to the author, the Eye and the BOE.

Catherine said...

There is a line item budget now. The presentation that she presented Monday night clearly showed she needed well more than the $818 Serra was offering due the number of special Ed positions she has to hire before she can even consider bringing back the teachers. Were you at the meeting? Towards the end one council member asked questions about the special Ed positions. It is shocking how much the need for special Ed and mental health services has gone up. Devastating to hear they had 16 kids cutting themselves at the high school and kids in the preschool needing significant behavioral therapy already due to trauma they have experienced. 50% kids qualify for free and reduced lunch so at least 1/2 your kids are in a dire financial situation. Are your kids in the schools now? Here is a link to their budget info. Is this not what you need to feel comfortable? http://www.middletownschools.org/page.cfm?p=7088
Beung at many meetings with the BOE and superintendent I have never had the sense they are hiding anything. My experience has only been the last three years though. Maybe it wasn't like this before?

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...


I respect you recognition of the job Middletown schools do, but if you want to talk about politics in the budgeting process, Serra's cheap shot of an offer is a case in point. Out of the blue, he speculates - what if we give you enough to cover the salaries of the potentially laid off teachers? What he doesn't consider, is this. If that's the entire amount the Council will move forward, there is still so much more that cannot be covered. The superintendent then has to think: Do I still layoff the teachers and use the money where it's needed elsewhere. Which would likely have to be the case. It was a chess move on Serra's part. He's annoyed, we get it. But he doesn't want to be seen as responsible for laying off teachers. He's said as much. He's trying to move the responsibility onto the shoulders of the Superintendent and BOE. He's saying this: We're still not going to give you the money you need, but we'll give you the amount to cover the cost of the salaries, and now it's your choice whether you have layoffs or not. He did the same with band uniforms and the crew shell last year. He took money that was "surplus" at the end of the year, and forced the BOE to spend it on band uniforms and the shell. BTW, his generous move to pay for the band uniforms only paid for fraction of the uniforms needed. But it was an amazingly astute political move.

lechowiczfam said...

Bill, there is a 298 page budget right on the Middletown Public Schools website - just like Tom Serra is annoyed with the public, I'm annoyed that people keep saying this information is not available. http://www.mps1.org/boe/BOEProposedBudget2016-2017.pdf

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should be spending some of that money allocated to the parks, including for dogs, on the schools instead?? Yes, I know. Your name is Ed.

BrianK said...

Lechowiczfam. Thank you for posting. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink. It is the same people who say the board is not transparent. Once they realize the fact are out there, they will have nothing to complain about. (Wishful thinking)

BrianK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.