Thursday, April 23, 2009

Middletown Council Asks Schools to Reduce Budget

There was a budget workshop last night for the School Committee & Town Council. The Schools had worked up a budget that was 4.75% higher than last year's. 4.75% is the max increase allowed by State law (next yr. it will be 4.5%). Of course, when the State passed these caps, it also promised a reliable school aid formula and a share in the general revenue funds. The former never materialized & all funding is in jeopardy.

The Council asked that it be reconfigured to a 2% raise. Why 2%? Chair Semonelli spoke that 2% is what's "palatable to the town." Indeed, from Councilor Sylvia, "If 2% was conveyed to you, why are we looking at 4.75%?" Good question, although that figure was only recently given to them. School Committee woman Theresa Silveira-Spengler, who was often quite upset and vocal at an otherwise calm meeting replied: "But, it's not reasonable."

As School Chair Michael Crowley explained, it's not only a difficult budget year, but they are smack in the middle of contract negotiations with both teachers & teacher assistants. This translates into a salary projection of the current contract. They are also unsure of State & fed'l funds. Any stimulus funding will not apply to current personnel- a definite drawback; not to mention know what the actual numbers are.

Since the largest expense of any school dept. is personnel, both groups were concerned with program cutting beyond what is already planned; e.g., the closing of Kennedy School. Councilor VonVillas was especially concerned with salaries. If you can reduce this line, you will not have further program cuts. "Start at the top." Councilo Silveira urged worked together on this budget, "We need to be part of the solution."

The meeting was dominated by Councilors VonVillas (a former school sup't), with frequent comments & suggestions from Councilors Sylvia and Silveira. It's nice to see people up there who actually know what they're talking about & can ask pointed questions. After all, that was the point of this workshop.

Sup't Kraeger did a good job with her Power Point presentation which was much appreciated by the tiny audience who had no copies of their budget (would have been nice). Short & to the point. School Chair Crowley was able to get to the heart of the schools' problems in coming up with a workable budget. Indeed, he mentioned the problem of the "starve the beast" philosophy which is now full-force at the local level. With little State and Fed'l funding (yet plenty of mandates), it is virtually impossible to fund schools properly. The guv's own office has suggested changing the budget year to Oct. rather than June so that $ would be more forthcoming.

School Committee woman Spengler had plenty to say about taxes & schools in an often confrontational manner full of non sequiturs. I didn't get her connection that if you pay higher taxes, you may as well send your kids to private school. Most notable is her anger with Vision Appraisal assessments & her high property taxes. Somehow she believes that if her assessment decreases, so will her taxes. Ah, you dreamer, it doesn't actually work that way. The irony of her discontent is that since the schools are appx. 70% of the town's budget, her own actions are increasing her taxes. She did liven up the meeting though. She is passionate about not cutting programs and that's a good thing.

Bottom line- it's not a good year to be in contract negotiations. BTW, Town Admin. Sean Brown (the Quiet Man), bespoke the fact that in the past year there have been more foreclosures in town than in the past 12. It's been much worse in Newport. The town, unlike Newport, does not keep figures on businesses gone kaput.

Expect to see a final budget from the Schools in June. They are also meeting tonight with a lively session expected from parents unhappy with the Kennedy School closing. Let's face it, it's all about $. It always has been.

The audience for this budget workshop was tiny. 3 elem. school Principals, two from the town's Finance dept., Matt Sheley from the NDN, RINEA local rep (God bless her, not a good year to have that job), and Karen Roarke (former Town Counselor). When Karen spoke up from the audience, she was reminded that it was a workshop (no comments) & promptly left. She forgot to ask, "Mother, may I?"

It was not filmed.
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