Several members argue district can’t afford to say no, but others say town is forcing an unnecessary choice.
By Elizabeth F. McNamara
After significant debate, the School Committee voted 5-2 Tuesday to approve a plan originally proposed by Town Manager Gayle Corrigan in which the school and town finance and human resources staffs will be consolidated and work as one.
Committee members Jeff Dronzek and Michael Fain voted against the plan, arguing that no change was really needed and that the past year of compromise with the town has yielded nothing positive for the schools.
“I don’t believe we should be essentially blackmailed into one way or the other,” said Dronzek. “We’ve been put in a difficult situation but we’re continually put in difficult situations by this Town Council.”
He said in the past year the Town Council had given the schools far less than they requested and had, as yet, not come through with additional funding as they had promised they would last June. He referred specifically to the extra preschool classroom that had to be added last August due to an unanticipated uptick in the number of students needing preschool services.
“How many times do we walk down the same road?” he said.
Chairwoman Carolyn Mark acknowledged the risk.
“This is uncharted waters. We don’t know if this is going to work,” she said. But she said she was going with the fact that Supt. Victor Mercurio supported the plan. “I’m hearing him say that not proceeding with this is worse than taking the risk of proceeding.”
She said the memorandum of agreement worked out by Mercurio and Corrigan had three important protections for the school district: shared responsibility between the town and schools; a dispute resolution process; and the ability given to either side to walk away from the agreement for the following year with 60 days notice.
“I’m not comfortable with this … but I have to balance what the superintendent says,” Mark said.
Corrigan proposed this all-or-nothing approach – either the town and schools consolidate finance departments completely or the town withdraws the support it already provides and the school district is forced to recreate a standalone finance department – in a joint meeting last December. The School Committee rejected it initially in February.
At that February meeting, Mercurio said building a standalone finance department was a non-starter. When asked to estimate what rebuilding a full finance department could cost, Mercurio said it cost $200,000 to $300,000.
Committeeman Matt Plain said it struck him “odd” that the status quo couldn’t be maintained. Ultimately, though, he said he wasn’t willing to risk the loss of school funding if the committee were to vote against the consolidation and subsequently had to spend a big chunk of budget money to build a standalone finance department.
“Complete separation would be painful. We have to take steps to stand up, [but] we also have to protect our kids,” he said, adding, “We have over a year’s worth of evidence that they may venture down this path.”
“The Town Council has not explained why we need to go to these extremes,” said Committee member Michael Fain. “I’m not willing to agree to something I don’t think is a smart move.”
Dronzek said he didn’t think the committee needed to make the choice at all.
“We didn’t propose this. We are our own governing body. The town has to force us to change. This is us playing along,” he said. “We should be able to just table the whole thing.”
Plain acknowledged a level of coercion by the town. “The remedy is political,” he said. All five seats on the Town Council are up for election in November (as are four of the seven School Committee seats).
“We’ve been backed into the corner for reasons that don’t seem reasonable to any of us…. We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Committee member Lori McEwen. Based on that, she said, she had to go with what the superintendent thought was the best option.
Committeewoman Mary Ellen Winter said the School Committee was in this position because the state Auditor General had to be called in last year because of a structural deficit and changes needed to be made.
Dronzek pushed back, arguing that the council’s decision to cut funding to the school district this year wasn’t helping to solve the deficit. He also argued that the cost savings was not comparable to what the School Committee would be giving up.
The consolidation is projected to save $70,000 in salaries. Dronzek said plans to redo the school department central office would eat into any savings (although the salary savings would extend yearly).
Committeewoman Yan Sun said she thought rejecting the consolidation plan was too risky.
“Our risk is one year,” she said, referring to the walk-away clause if either side decided the consolidation wasn’t working. “On the other side … I see that the risk of complete separation is much higher.”
A motion to table the plan failed 2-5, with Dronzek and Fain the lone supporters.
Now that the School Committee has approved the memorandum of agreement on the plan, it goes to the Town Council for a vote.