School Committee, Town Council Spar Over School Spending

by | Dec 19, 2017

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

School Committeeman Matt Plain

Monday night’s joint Town Council–School Committee meeting was the Town Charter-mandated start of the 2019 budget session (yes, we are still in 2017, but we are nearly halfway through fiscal year 2018 and the town must adopt a FY 2019 budget by the end of June). The two bodies swapped financial projections, but the joint session also included an extended discussion over how and if the school district should receive extra money from the town for unforeseen expenses.

The Town Council level-funded the 2018 schools budget, but also took some expenses off the schools’ books. That left the School Committee with a $700,000 hole to fill on the budget they had passed in April, but the Town Council said they would set aside $300,000 from their capital expenses budget in case the schools needed extra money for special education.

When the School Committee learned they needed to add an additional pre-K classroom because of an enrollment increase last summer, they assumed that was the sort of unexpected expense the Town Council was talking about. According to Town Manager Gayle Corrigan, however, that’s not quite the case. She outlined reasons why the school district should be able to get additional funds, including new students requiring out-of-district placement. Corrigan said the additional pre-K classroom was, instead, a salary increase.

“When you’re looking at salaries in a budget, a lot of things happen in a year,” Corrigan said, suggesting that two additional salaries could be a wash with the amount of turnover the district might experience.

But when Councilman Mark Schwager asked Corrigan if salaries were not something she would consider important to put forward for supplemental funding, however, Corrigan protested.

“I didn’t want to be so restrictive,” she said. She defended the letter she sent to the School Committee in early December that the School Committee interpreted as a narrowing of possibility for supplemental funding.

“The idea of this letter is not to say no,” she said. “The idea of this letter is to say yes.”

Town Council President Sue Cienki said the Town Council didn’t act on an earlier request for supplemental funding because they wanted to give new Special Education Director Lisa Hughes a chance to review the program, suggesting that perhaps the School Committee would learn the district actually needed more than the money associated with the additional pre-K classroom.

Cienki confirmed that there was indeed money set aside for supplemental school funding – an issue raised Monday night after Town Manager Corrigan repeatedly said she would have to do extensive budget work to identify additional money for the schools.

That did not stop Corrigan from pointing out – again – that if the schools needed more money, that would mean the police wouldn’t get new cruisers this year.

“It’s going to affect the town,” she said. (The Town Council cut taxes in June.)

School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark told the council that the high school could be put on warning status in coming months by school accreditation organization NEASC because it does not have a library media specialist. Council President Cienki said the old Cole Middle School was on warning status for years because of insufficient facilities. School Committeewoman Lori McEwen, asst. superintendent in North Attleboro, said warning status for curriculum-related reasons was far more significant than for facilities reasons.

Councilman Nino Granatiero questioned why, if the School Committee was so worried about accreditation, it had not yet hired a curriculum director (also known as a director of teaching and learning).

“I think it’s disingenuous to say that because we level-funding the schools you can’t hire a director of curriculum and have all these problems,” he said. “Suddenly we’re in a dire situation.”

Granatiero said maybe the School Committee needed to look at the entire budget and make room for a curriculum director, which, he said, could bring savings in the long run.

He then asked what structural changes the School Committee had made in its budget since it was level funded in June, looking at things like class sizes.

That prompted School Committeeman Matt Plain to launch into a history of public education in the U.S., – including Horace Mann (famous 19th century advocate of public education) and Brown v. Board of Education (the landmark civil rights U.S. Supreme Court case) in his outline of how public education was a relatively recent phenomenon and one that was constantly improving.

“We’ve gotten better at providing a free and appropriate education,” he said. “We can’t just look at, ‘Well, it used to cost less.’ That’s because we have more opportunities to do better by the students we serve…. This is about service and this is about investment.”

Plain’s treatise did nothing to deter Granatiero

“You still haven’t answered my question. Dr. Mercurio, what major, meaningful changes have we made in the last five months?” he asked.

That prompted School Committee member McEwen to jump in.

“We don’t operate in our own vacuum,” she said. “And we can’t say, let’s just change everything. Let’s maybe not have a superintendent or maybe let’s not have a School Committee or maybe let’s try and have 60 kids in one classroom. We have union obligations. We have state and federal mandates.… I’m confused about what else we can do. This is not a corporate restructuring.”

“If a director of curriculum makes sense … how is it that you don’t find and move things elsewhere,” Granatiero asked. “I’m just trying to understand.”

“Our only opportunity to do that is to cut other programs and services,” said Chairwoman Mark. “This is not a community that should have to choose between French, between a library media specialist, between a choral director and whether or not we have a director of teaching and learning. Those are the choices that would be required for us to be able to make that investment that nobody wants to make more than every single member of this committee.”

The Town Council and School Committee will revisit the question of additional money for the schools in January.

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December 19, 2017 2:19 am

OMG! I knew this is how it would be reported. “That did not stop Corrigan from pointing out – again – that if the schools needed more money, that would mean the police wouldn’t get new cruisers this year.” She used this as an EXAMPLE of an item that would be cut if we have to give the district more money. Yes, she used in as AN EXAMPLE many times, but it was clearly stated (each time) as an example of a town cut that would be necessary if we need to allocate more school funding.

Karen Kenny
Karen Kenny
December 19, 2017 9:42 am
Reply to  Jodu

The point made in the article is that the $300,000 supposedly set aside for use by the schools would actually be money pulled from other town use. So it’s not really set aside for the schools. I believe the reporting was clear.

December 19, 2017 2:21 am

The 2020 accreditation criteria is way more curriculum focused and based than in 2011, where we were cited for NOT HAVING ALIGNED CURRICULUM. Never mind the mention of our decaying technology infrastructure and (I quote) our DEPLORABLE (yes, deplorable) locker room conditions! But that’s not news….

Heather Larkin
Heather Larkin
December 19, 2017 8:58 am

Has Mr. Granatiero ever been to any School Committee budget workshops? He might consider attending them this year so he can understand the process. For Pete’s sake, they were talking about additional REQUIRED salaries that they can’t afford this year.

Alex Smith
Alex Smith
December 20, 2017 1:32 am
Reply to  Heather Larkin

Why can’t they outsource pre-k IEP’s? Has the SC done that fiscal impact? That would NOT MAKE the ‘salaries required’ increase at all; negating your point…

Renu Englehart
Renu Englehart
December 19, 2017 9:33 am

I thought it was interesting how Ms Corrigan stated that no the TC could not touch line items (by law) and then proceeded to contradict herself in mentioning five line items that could possibly be cut (and then mentioning numerous times how the police dept would bear the brunt). Furthermore Ms. Granatiero also contradicted himself when he verified that yes, the TC in the past had instructed the SC to use the reserve funds to cover necessary expenses that perhaps the so-called surplus money wasn’t actually there.

But how is hiring a preschool teacher due to higher enrollment not a “demonstrated need”? Watching the town council president have to explain Ms. Corrigan’s double speak is an example to me how Ms. Corrigan probably is not the best person to run this town.

PS in 2011 Ms. Cienki was president of the SC – I’d ask her how her about the curriculum issue. And forcing the departments (police cruiser vs schools) to spar with each other over financial issues is not a good practice, whether in govt or private company.

Jason Beaumier
Jason Beaumier
December 19, 2017 3:31 pm

I was critical of the schools and their requests in the initial budget process. But, after you level fund them and they try and to make it work and can’t, along with the fact you told them you would set aside money for them and now deny them, it’s a problem.


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