School Board budget talks continue

For the past two weeks, the Manchester Board of School Committee has been trying to hammer out a budget, but talks have stalled on the three proposals outlined below. When the board returns from February break, they are expected to take a vote.

School Board Weighs 3 budget options

Saturday, Feb. 19, 2010

MANCHESTER — When the Board of School Committee votes on a budget next month, it will have three proposals to choose from, each including a possible tax increase.

The three varying proposals indicate a wide range of opinions of the school board regarding how much it should cut school programs to keep tax increases down. The board’s lack of consensus and lengthy debates over the budget now have the Board of Mayor and Aldermen wondering how much longer it will take for the school board to reach a decision.

Of the three proposed budgets before the school board, the one with the deepest cuts comes from Superintendent Thomas Brennan and Mayor Ted Gatsas, who have proposed a $1.3 million spending increase over last year’s budget or less than a 1 percent increase on the current tax rate. Ward 9 Committee member Arthur Beaudry’s proposal would equate to about a 1.5 percent tax increase and Ward 2 Committee member Joe Briggs estimates his proposal creates a 6.7 percent tax increase.

These figures do not account for any possible tax increase on the city side.

Although all of the plans call for spending increases, they also include cuts or union concessions to partially make up for the expected $11 million budget shortfall next fiscal year. This shortfall is caused by increases in salaries and benefits, as well as the loss of $4.8 million in stimulus funding.

Brennan and Gatsas brought forward a $150 million budget that would cut 200 paraprofessionals, eliminate building level instructional leaders, move Information Technology and Human Resources Departments under city control and use about $1 million in one-time money. The proposal would keep all current teacher positions, fill vacant teaching spots and hire 17 new teachers.

“There’s no question every person in this district is of value, but when you’re at home and have your budget in front of you, you have to make some decisions, and sometimes you have to make some difficult decisions,” Gatsas said.

On the other end of the budget spectrum is Briggs, who has proposed a $162 million budget that would keep all current school district programs and positions in place, add $2 million for technology upgrades and $10,000 for a new middle school lacrosse program. His proposal also hinges on the teacher unions agreeing to pay about $1.7 million more next year in health care costs, roughly the amount health care spending has gone up in the past year.

In his presentation to the board on Monday, Briggs said his constituents don’t want the quality of education to decline in Manchester. “They would much prefer to see a tax increase in the $300 to $500 range than another school disruption and loss of home values,” Briggs said.

The budget that falls in the middle was crafted by Beaudry, who has proposed spending $152 million on the schools next year. The budget cuts building-level instructional leaders, leaves 24 teaching positions unfilled, reduces one assistant principal position and uses about $2.8 million in one-time funds. To make Beaudry’s plan feasible, however, the paraprofessional union AFSCME Local 3912 must agree to shift 200 paraprofessionals to part-time status. These employees would keep their jobs, but would see a 20 percent decrease in salary and benefits.

If the union does not agree, Beaudry said his budget would cut 68 paraprofessional jobs.

The hardest-fought cut has been the 200 paraprofessionals, which Committee members Debra Gagnon Langton, Beaudry and Briggs have argued are invaluable to the district and cannot be replaced by hiring the 40 teachers Brennan has proposed.

If 40 or even 100 paraprofessionals were hired, as was initially suggested, Briggs asked where these teachers would go.

“I just don’t see where the classrooms are going to come from given the challenges we have,” Briggs said. “I’m very concerned about the reduction in paraprofessionals. Even if they are replaced with teachers, it’s going to result in a more chaotic classroom.”

Langton told the board Feb. 9 she thought the paraprofessional numbers the district presented were misleading. During his budget presentation, Brennan said the district needs 127 of its more than 320 paraprofessionals to meet federal education standards. He said this was based on numbers submitted by Manchester school principals, but Langton said she spoke with some principals and they could not back up the numbers.

“We were led to believe the administration spoke with the principals,” Langton said. “I asked for back-up documentation on those numbers and the administration could not provide it. If this is not correct, what else is not correct?”

Brennan said he asked principals to list how many paraprofessionals they need to fulfill educational mandates now, not projections for next year.

The board will meet Feb. 28 to debate these proposals and is expected to vote that night. Despite three lengthy budget discussions in the past two weeks, the board has struggled to decide even how to conduct the budget debate, let alone come to consensus on what they are willing to cut.

The aldermen, which typically reserve debate on the school budget until it is brought before them for a vote, asked Gatsas on Tuesday if the school board was stalling. “If there is a delay tactic on the school board side and it becomes the end of the month and there’s no budget, can the mayor present his budget without the school board presenting its budget to us?” Alderman At-Large Mike Lopez asked.

The mayor is required by charter to submit a budget by the end of March. The school board in the past has voted on a budget, held the required public hearing and presented it to the aldermen before this point in the cycle. There is nothing in the charter that prohibits the mayor from presenting a budget before the school committee does.

“If the city charter allows the mayor to present the budget to us and we can act on it without the school board taking a vote, I don’t understand what we’re waiting for,” said Ward 12 Alderman Patrick Arnold.

Although allowed under the charter, Gatsas and Ward 11 Alderman Russ Ouellette said the school board should be given the time to put together its own budget and present it to the public.

“They are elected officials and they have a responsibility to the school district,” said Ouellette. “I think they have a responsibility to explain that budget and what it means.”

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