School budget talks go past midnight

For the first time since I started at the Union Leader, the meeting went past deadline and I had to do a (late) follow-up. Here’s the first part.

Wrangling continues on city school budget

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

MANCHESTER – As discussion continued into the wee hours, the Board of School Committee was stalled over whether to lay off staff to make up a budget shortfall.

At one point, committee members tried to balance next year’s $10 million budget shortfall by eliminating 12 retiring teacher positions, asking for $2.4 million more from the city and using $3 million in one-time money.

Four hours into Monday night’s meeting, the board agreed to request a $152 million budget for the 2012 fiscal year, but were short $2.5 million to cover all programs and positions. Attempts to fill the hole by reducing vacant staff positions and 79 paraprofessionals failed. Sensing an impasse, Committee member Mike DeBlasi suggested the board bring its budget to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen pledging to fill the gap with cuts in salaries, either by laying off teachers, administrators or paraprofessionals.

“We have a lot of stubbornness in this room and we are never going to come to an agreement,” DeBlasi said.

The suggestion to leave the issue open-ended originally came from committee member John Avard, who said it is difficult to decide on cuts when the district does not yet know how many paraprofessionals will be needed for special education mandates, how many teachers will be needed after redistricting or how much the aldermen planned to give the board.

A vote taken at 11:30 p.m. to bring the unbalanced budget to the aldermen failed 8-6.

Some members suggested the board take up the budget during a specially scheduled meeting on Saturday, but when members realized not everyone would be able to attend, they agreed early this morning to hammer out the budget.

Once a final budget is approved, the board must hold a public hearing and present their budget to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

The board’s vote for an additional $2.4 million from the city would mean a 1.5 percent increase in the tax rate, an issue Mayor Ted Gatsas strongly opposed.

He voted against the motion, as did committee members Tom Katsiantonis, Debra Gagnon Langton and David Gelinas.

“We don’t have authority to set a tax rate nor do we have the ability to raise taxes out of the taxes collected by the city. We will receive an additional 1.5 percent,” said DeBlasi. “We can’t and haven’t asked for a tax increase.”

“It’s clear the vote here tonight is increasing taxes,” Gatsas countered.

“For years the money allocated to the school side of the equation is low and we’ve been underfunded,” said DeBlasi. “Our schools right now are requesting more money from the general fund.”

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