Selectmen approved Town Manager Julian M. Suso’s $115.54 million budget on Monday night despite a $1.5 million shortfall that exists between his proposal and the one the school department has requested for the next fiscal year.
The vote was a follow-up to last week’s discussion in which finance director Jennifer Petit presented the board with the proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget at which time selectmen expressed concerns about the $44 million the school department is currently seeking. Mr. Suso is only proposing to increase that department’s budget by $734,000, representing a $1.5 million gap that is needed to cover rising costs for special education students sent out of the district as well as a 2 percent contracted raise for staff.
At Monday's meeting selectmen continued to raise issue with the gap between what Mr. Suso is proposing and the school department is requesting, talking directly with school superintendent Bonny L. Gifford about their concerns and what can be done to address them.
The discussion began with Dr. Gifford detailing the impact the budget shortfall could have on the school department, mentioning the possibility of 44 positions being cut.
She warned that this could have a detrimental impact on students who come from a variety of backgrounds, have their own specific needs and talents, stressing the human aspect of the equation that cannot be measured. The process, she said, has been difficult, noting that just last week she was attending a school concert following a budget meeting. “It brought tears to my eyes,” she said, because programs such as this and the people that run them could be affected.
Selectman Kevin E. Murphy later chided Dr. Gifford for using emotion to bolster her argument as it was unfair to do in a budgetary discussion. “I wish I could give you all the money in the world, but I can’t. I wish I was the wizard, but I’m not,” he said.
He also was critical of her throwing out several budgetary figures at the beginning of her presentation that made it difficult for board members to follow. On one side of the ledger she listed roughly $4 million in revenues for special education both this year and next, but on the opposite side the costs outweigh what the school department is bringing in.
On top of that he was upset with the $965,000 in contractual increases that go above what the town can afford to give the school department due to the limitations of Proposition 2 1/2, the state law that limits the amount a municipality can increase its taxes on annual basis by 2.5 percent. “The math doesn’t work,” he said. “You should be able to figure it out.”
“I wasn’t here when that happened,” Dr. Gifford said, in reference to the contract her predecessor Marc P. Dupuis agreed to with the union. “I will try to do better moving forward.”
“One of the first questions people ask me is why are we cutting teachers. Why not cut the administrative positions?”
Chairman Brent Putnam
Both Mr. Murphy and chairman of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen Brent V.W. Putnam pressed Dr. Gifford on what positions could be impacted, recommending that administrative ones should be looked at. “One of the first questions people ask me is why are we cutting teachers,” Mr. Putnam said. “Why not cut the administrative positions?”
He noted that teachers, unlike administrators, are the ones who are able to positively impact students because of their direct interaction with them.
Dr. Gifford disagreed with that notion, stressing some of the rigorous mandates that make administrators a necessity in her department. With something as basic as teacher evaluations, she said, administrators are not simply filling out paperwork, but observing teachers, both announced and unannounced, multiple times throughout the course of the school year. “There is an increase in what is being asked of us,” she said.
Selectman Douglas H. Jones wondered whether the school department could challenge some of these state mandates because it is not providing the funding for communities like Falmouth to implement them. “Maybe it is a radical idea to say we’ve got a great system here and we will do our own common core and assessment,” he said.
All it takes, he said, is one municipality to stand up to the Massachusetts Department of Education to make it take notice and hopefully offer greater financial support for school initiatives.
Maybe, Dr. Gifford said, “it’s time to occupy Malden,” in reference to the state agency’s headquarters.
Of all the board members, selectman and former school committee member Rebecca Moffitt was most sympathetic to the challenges Dr. Gifford and her department are facing, particularly because of the potential staff members being let go. “Nothing is simple on the school side,” she said, arguing that programs and staff should not be impacted.
“Where do you propose the money comes from?” Mr. Murphy asked.
A permanent override, Ms. Moffitt said, saying that Proposition 2 1/2 “has been the bane of our existence since ,” in reference to the year the state law was enacted.
While she pushed for such measures Mr. Suso urged the board and Dr. Gifford to have patience, pointing out that it is still January and projected revenues from the state as well as health insurance costs were still preliminary. He is anticipating having a clearer picture of these figures within the next two months.
“We have shown in this community an ability to work with our colleagues in the school department,” he said. “I don’t see that changing in any way... I am highly confident we will be able to move forward amiably.”
Shortly after making his comments, the board approved his budget unanimously, moving it onto the Falmouth Finance Committee, which will begin a more detailed review of the budget starting next Tuesday at the School Administration Building at 6:30 PM.