2018-05-03 / Front Page

Schools and Council Look at Increase

Public Hearings Next
By Christopher Allen

In a session that lasted more than two hours, the Town Council hosted the Middletown School Committee for a budget workshop on Saturday, April 28 at town hall. In anticipation of a final budget adoption in May, the school committee took the next step in the fight for a 4 percent increase in their budget for the 2018-2019 school year.

The current request to the town from the schools is $27.5 million of a total budget of $42.8 million, and some council members made it clear that they want hard numbers on savings and money allocation before making any decision.

“At the end of the day, we need a return on any investment that we make,” said Council President Robert Sylvia. “Whether it be safety for our children or whether it be monetary savings on electricity or monetary savings on overall generic costs. But to solicit funds without identifying potential savings... to me right now, you threw a pie in the sky. Saying OK, you’re going to get this percentage [in savings]. Well, based on what?”

Committee chair Kellie Simeone, in opening remarks that kicked off the session, told the council that the district has made necessary strides toward increasing efficiency across the board, referencing the town’s decision last year to level fund schools.

Simeone reiterated past declarations that the current school year has been a challenge, and that a failure to increase next year’s budget will cause further cuts to programs due to the annual increase in costs such as contractual salary increases and other obligatory spending. According to school officials, fine arts programs and athletics will be the first to be cut if there is no increase in spending.

“It’s been another challenging budget year. I know we sound like a broken record,” she said.

Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger told the council that the 4 percent request will help to keep safe current academic programming, and it is not meant for any further significant expansion or initiative. With another round of decreases in state aid on the way, Kraeger said the school department budget aims to maintain current levels. The statewide school funding formula is set in place for the next three years.

“We tried to keep the reductions [last year] as far away from the classroom as possible,” she said.

Kraeger told the council that the district staff is always looking for alternative, outside sources of funding. This activity includes searching and applying for private, foundation, non-profit or state level grants.

Director of Facilities David Fontes answered questions from the council on the status of the multiple construction bond projects going on across the district, as well as on several cost-saving measures his department has implemented, including the installation of LED lighting and the completion of smaller projects done by his staff instead of outside contractors.

Council Vice President Paul Rodrigues asked Fontes if he could offer an aggregate dollar amount in cost savings, to which he responded that he would find out and report back to the council at a later date.

“I like to deal in dollars instead of percentages,” Rodrigues said.

The next stage in the school budget process will be public hearings on the current proposal, where residents and other stakeholders can give testimony to the council. Comments toward the end of the meeting by council member Henry Lombardi Jr. illustrated the adversarial relationship between those who control the town’s purse strings and those charged with providing public education.

“We understand you are operating on a shoestring budget. We understand that things are tough [with funding sources],” said Lombardi. “I’m waiting for the dog-and-pony show to come at our public hearings, where you’re going to bring in parents, you’re going to bring in kids [to advocate against cuts]... I know it’s going to happen. It’s already started.”

The next regular school committee meeting is set for May 17. There are two public hearings on the budget scheduled for May 23 and May 30 at 6 p.m. at town hall.

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