By Elizabeth F. McNamara
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.