2015-05-07 / Front Page

Schools Directed to Cut $144K

By James Merolla

On the surface, it doesn’t sound like much – $144,000 out of a proposed $38.4 million school budget – but the Middletown Town Council is adamant that the School Committee make that cut for the next fiscal year.

In a May 4 joint meeting to discuss challenges that the committee faces in order to keep its annual budget under the two percent tax increase ceiling that the town recommends, school officials vented over how much harder the process has become annually, especially since state aid has declined by around $890,000 over the last five years.

Last year, the town budget included a two percent tax increase, with a corresponding two percent increase to the appropriation for education, but only a .81 percent increase in the spending for all other municipal operations.

The schools asked the Town Council a year ago for a 3.24 percent increase, or about $300,000 beyond the tax cap, which was granted. In the 2016 budget negotiations, the council has been presented with a request from the School Committee for an additional .58 percent above the two percent threshold.

A strict two percent increase would mean an extra $495,000 for the schools. The 2.58 percent request would provide an additional $144,000 beyond that.

The total proposal is $1 mil- lion less than the $39.4 million the school operated under in fiscal 2015.

For the better part of an hour, in front of a good-sized crowd at Town Hall, the schools defended their annual budgeting ordeal, saying they have reviewed their numbers inside and out to hold the line.

“This is not a nice-to-have [budget],” said Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger. “This is what we need to survive.”

“We worked very hard on it; it is very difficult to do, obviously,” said committee member Theresa Spengler. “Everybody has worked together. This budget represents a one percent increase in expenditures.”

But several things rankled the council, especially when they learned that the schools had not yet followed through on a January recommendation to bring in a financial adviser.

Councilor Paul Rodrigues and Council President Robert J. Sylvia were incredulous that the schools couldn’t find the right consultant and still had no one in place after several months.

“This really upsets me that this has been going on since January. I don’t have a good feeling about this at all,” said Sylvia.

But Town Administrator Shawn Brown, defending the school process, said that “Finding a consultant with the right expertise has been difficult. There are not dozens of consultants familiar with the program and how to apply it.”

“It’s not like this has not been discussed,” added Spengler. “The dialogue has happened. The effort is there. We agreed to [finding an adviser] when we walked out of here in January.”

Brown offered to explore other ways to find the right consultant.

Sylvia said he was confident that the schools could find a way to reduce its numbers by $144,000 to stay within the two percent cap. “We know it’s not easy,” said Sylvia, especially because the schools are, by far, the largest department in Middletown. “We applaud what you did. I thought the number would be higher.”

Kraeger said the number of faculty and staff positions the district has removed in the last few years is “staggering.” She cited 28 positions on virtually every level and at each school which had to be cut as state aid has decreased.

Councilor Henry “Rick” Lombardi was vehement in defending the school department, saying he was tired of cuts that could reduce the stellar reputation that Middletown schools have enjoyed. “You can’t balance this on the backs of the union and you can’t balance this on the backs of our kids anymore. Somewhere along the line [the cuts have] to stop,” Lombardi said to rousing applause from teachers looking on.

The final word came from Sylvia. “We are proud of the school system. We are not enemies. We have to work together,” he said.

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