Budget season

The longer I do it, the more I realize budget debates are all the same. The only thing that differs is the size of the fight.

The debate over the school budget has become pretty serious, with more than 200 people showing up at a budget hearing this week, followed by a three-hour aldermen hearing about schools. This column, which appeared before those hearings, got 60 comments and drew education advocates, union bashers and simple spendthrifts to the table.

After going through a tough union negotiation battle with my company this fall and winter myself, I understood that such events have an effect on morale and condition of the workplace. When you take that idea and apply it to people who educate children all day, I thought it touched on something interesting … how worrying about your job year after year affects the face you put on for the kids each day. I also wondered is it solely up to the teachers to make their workplace better or do city and school leaders have a responsibility in it too.

Threat of layoffs creates ‘terrible’ morale for school staff

The school board’s decision to pink slip 161 school staffers last week came as a surprise to some board members, who entered the chambers that evening under the assumption that the votes to pass a reduction in force were not there.

Since then, the reality has sunk in, especially for teachers, and the union leadership has met to discuss the ramifications of the layoffs. As of Wednesday, there were no plans to bring the entire union membership together to talk about concessions.

With little movement expected from either side, both school and union top officials said the vote has further chipped away at the staff’s already low morale.

“Right now, people aren’t feeling good, especially after that meeting,” said Manchester Education Association President Ben Dick.

Staff morale is “terrible,” said Superintendent of Schools Thomas Brennan. “People are very anxious and concerned about their livelihood.”

Although the deadline for laying off teachers is not until May, Brennan said his staff will soon determine how to spread the 161 pink slips throughout the district.

“We certainly have the obligation to give all the staff time to get into the job market earlier,” said Brennan.

When those pink slips do come out, they’ll be hand delivered by Brennan, which he sees as his responsibility.

“My name is on the bottom of that page,” he said.

Mayor Ted Gatsas sees the teachers’ down attitude in another light.

“It seems as though the morale in the city (employees) was the same thing,” said Gatsas. “We came to an agreement with the unions on concessions, and it seems the morale has changed 180 degrees.”

– –

SOMETIMES REACHING a compromise comes easy to the aldermen, and other times they find themselves walking away with a few bumps and bruises.

The mayor and aldermen are clearly showing some black and blue marks, caused by banging their heads against the wall in the ongoing debate over the city’s new fleet-management system. For the fourth meeting in a row, the aldermen on Tuesday are expected to take up whether the city should form a new department or maintain a division under the Highway Department.

The sticking point all along has been how to shift the maintenance garage employees — represented by six different unions — to one new department without launching a barrage of labor grievances.

To help smooth things over, the aldermen asked the unions for their input. Last week, the unions responded with a letter outlining how they would like the transition to take place.

The unions asked that all current garage employees be transferred to a newly created department but that they also be “grandfathered” into their roles at their previous departments. In other words, a Fire Department mechanic would continue to work on fire trucks in the new garage under the same benefits given to fire employees. If a situation arose in which that mechanic was needed to work on another department’s vehicle, that employee could work on other projects.

These workers should also be offered certification and training, the letter says, so mechanics from different departments could expand the kinds of equipment they could work on and increase efficiency.

Alderman Patrick Long, who has been working with the unions to reach some agreement, said the response was what he expected. He now hopes some compromise can be made and that the aldermen vote soon to create the Fleet Management Department.

Gatsas, who plans to talk about the department in his budget address on Tuesday, said he appreciates the work the unions did to move toward an agreement.

“The board needs to step up and take a vote to make it a department and move forward,” said Gatsas.

– –

BRENNAN HAS REJECTED the proposal to shift fifth-graders into the city’s four middle schools. For more than a year, he has been researching ways to reassign city students to relieve crowding in some schools while using extra space in others. Brennan told the school board on Monday there is not enough room in all of the middle schools — despite being under capacity — to properly accommodate all the fifth-graders. Even if the move was made, Brennan added, it would not create enough room in those crowded elementary schools to make much of a difference.

Brennan didn’t get an argument from the board. On Tuesday, Brennan said he will probably suggest the school board make only small adjustments to school populations when he presents his redistricting plan in April.

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