Posted on 03 March 2010.
By: Maria Moore
“We have budget with a 1.91% increase over last year, with direction from the Board of Finance for a 0% increase.” Sue Lundin, the New Hartford Schools Board of Ed (BOE) Chair, said at the beginning of the Board’s meeting last night, Tuesday, March 2.
By the end of the meeting, Board of Ed members approved Katie Natale’s motion to “accept a 2.71% increase with the addition of unemployment and legal fees not to exceed 3%.” With only two of its members voting against the motion, Steve Tuxbury and Bryan Keilty, that is the increase built into the budget that the Superintendent of Schools Philip O’Reilly will present at the Board of Finance meeting next Tuesday, March 9.
The meeting was held at the New Hartford Elementary School and the auditorium was filled with parents, teachers and members of various town board members, just as had been the case at the last Board of Ed meeting at Ann Antolini School. An in a replay of the Board’s last meeting, the first part of yesterday’s meeting was again given over to members of the public to express their concerns and to comment on the budget that the Board was considering.
The first parent who spoke asked the Board to consider a 3% budget to bring back some of the teachers cut. Â The next parent asked about the letter from the teachers’ union in which the teachers had suggested budget savings by offering an early retirement incentive be offered to teachers. Â “Where is it?” Â The parent asked about that option. Â Â The Board members answered that they had made the retirement offer contingent on teachers accepting the wage freeze. Â “It would allow us to save the people but not the positions” Superintendent Philip O’Reilly added. Â The same parent was concerned about class size increasing; excluding the preschool program, the current class sizes of 14.8-22.25 are projected to rise to 18.75-24 in the 2010-2011 school year. Â That parent asked what the teachers’ contract says about class sizes and Philip answered that “The Board will make every effort to keep class size at 25.”
Another parent said she wished she had known what the teachers contract would mean, that she hadn’t understood that it would lead to a tax increase. Â “It leads to buyers’ remorse, it leaves a very bitter taste for those who voted for it.” Â The parent said.
A home builder read a prepared statement in which he said: “The town must find a way to pay our obligations.” Â And that: “The town is asking them to shoulder the responsibility for the town’s financial problems.” Â He added that he had heard it rumored that the teachers would support a pay freeze in return for not cutting postions and he urged the Board to revisit that.
Another parent said education is a barometer of the quality of the town. Â He said that education shouldn’t have to suffer for other areas of town that had been mismanaged. Â A teacher in another school system said that he had seen his classes increase from 18 to 22 which had an effect on the quality of the teaching. Â “It’s a different world out there socially ~ it’s not the same profession as in 1991 when I started teaching.” Â He said and he concluded by saying that the town had made a promise to the teachers and that it needed to keep it.
There were no more comments from the audience at the start of the meeting. There was another opportunity for public comments after the Board had approved the 2.71% increase budget at the end of their deliberation. A summary of those comments will be included after the summary of the Board’s discussions.
Sue Lundin asked Board members for their input on the 1.91% increase budget before them, keeping in mind that they had been directed by the Board of Finance for a 0% increase.
The majority of the Board had wanted a budget closer to 3% and they decided to look at putting something back. Board member Katie Natale asked about the feasibility of bringing back even one teacher but fellow Board member Bryan Keilty responded that they’d have to make more cuts to do that.
Bryan said that with the original budget coming in at 9.3%, he’d asked Philip to come up with numbers for an early retirements/wage freeze/health incentives scenario which, he said, would bring them closer to a 3%-3.63% budget. “We should consider it. We’re not preserving positions but we’re keeping all the personnel. It should be looked at a lot harder.” Bryan added that it would mean a wage freeze at every bargaining unit and it would incorporate some, not all of the teachers’ proposals; see our copy of the letter from the teacher’s union outlining their proposals which is included as a downloadable PDF to our February 25 report Between a Rock and a Hard Place… (Part II).
Katie said that as an educator she has been very supportive of the schools but she said she represents the interest of the community and that during the recent elections she had heard a lot of frustration and anger expressed Â by people who are hurting from the economic downturn. Â She said she wasn’t relinquishing her commitment to education but: “We’re facing the tip of the iceberg… we have no control over what’s coming down the pike. Â We have to think long-term: this budget is easier than next year’s. Â I support coming in at 3%.”
Bryan said that when the teacher’s contract was negotiated noone could have foreseen the huge increase in health benefits. Â “We need to go back and ask for help with health care. Â How about looking at benefits?” Â Jennifer Zenuh, Board of Ed member, agreed saying: “Get all the bargaining units together and revisit the benefits package.” Â Philip responded that he had sat down with three of the non-teacher bargaining units and had asked them to consider the Regional #7 (health care) package and all three had rejected it that morning (Tuesday, March 2).
Board member Elaine Carmelich asked whether the 1.91% budget in front of them reflected the cut in the custodian. Â Sue responded that it was not included, that they had voted at their last meeting not to cut the custodian. Â This brought a puzzled reaction from some of the Board members, as well as our reporter, who recollected the Board agreeing not to replace the custodian who was retiring at the end of this school year. Â Later in the meeting Bryan came back to the status of the 5th custodian position, asking: “Did we actually vote on that?” Â He too was told: “We did.” Â That was not his recollection and Bryan, who put a $63,000 price tag on the custodian position, later brought it up for a vote. Â Noting that it involved hiring someone to fill the vacated position, Bryan proposed a motion to cut the one custodian position, and not to hire a new custodian, leaving the 3 schools with 4 full-time custodians. Â The motion was defeated, and the 5th position was left in the budget. Â As the budget now Â stands, the schools will be hiring a new custodian to replace the one retiring.
In answer to a question from a Board member asking what it would take to get to a 0 (zero) budget, Philip said it would mean cutting down the whole of Central Office by one day. Â Katie said this was unrealistic since Central Office was already thinly staffed, and the matter was dropped.
Steve proposed cutting one day from each of the two school psychologists. Â The schools currently have 2 full-time psychologists, one at Antolini and one between New Hartford and Bakerville schools. Â The motion passed, cutting the 2 FTE positions down to 1.8 FTEs.
Cuts were discussed for the Director of Student Services position, included in the 1.91% budget at .8 FTE, but that position was left intact at 4 days per week, with Philip saying that although they had been allowed to contract it out for the current year he wasn’t sure whether they’d be allowed to do that for a second year.
Steve proposed a motion to cut the Library Media Specialist, saying: “It comes down to what you want: Do you want classroom teachers or keep the library media specialist?” Â The motion was defeated, and no cuts were made.
Katie asked about the effects of cutting the Instructional Assistants (IAs). Â Philip said there was currently 1 FTE IA at Antolini, and two other IAs for New Hartford Elementary School and Bakerville School, one at .5 FTE and one at .4 FTE. Â Philip said that it would mean the teachers would do all the copying and that they would lose recess and lunch room coverage; their duties are basically clerical and supervising children, he clarified. Â Katie asked whether that would still leave the paraprofessionals and Philip confirmed that it would. Â Katie then asked about the contract language related to assigning those duties to teachers, and Philip confirmed that there was no language in the contract not to assign duties, adding that teachers now have minimal duties. Â Katie proposed a motion to eliminate the IA positions identified by Philip and the motion passed. Â All three IAs will be cut under the Board’s proposed budget.
At this point Philip calculated that the budget stood at 0.69% increase. Â The Board went into a brief executive session to discuss the transportation contract renegotiation. Â At the end of the executive session, the public was allowed back into the meeting and the budget discussion was picked up again.
Board members noted that a 0.69% budget was a $50,000 increase (approximate figure), and that a 3% budget was a $227,000 increase (approximate figure). Â Board members discussed bringing back two of the teachers cut for a total of $147,500 (approximate figure) which would bring the budget up to a 2.71% increase. Â They also discussed adding unemployement costs and legal fees, which brought the budget close to a 3% increase.
Katie proposed a motion to: “Direct to restore 2 teaching positions up to a level of 3% over the current year.” Â The motion was passed, with only Steve and Bryan voting against it.
There was a short discussion about the Board’s legal requirements to let teachers know about cuts if the Board’s proposed budget was not passed. Â Philip said that they would still have time to make the cuts. Â He concluded by saying that it was imperative for the Board members and for the community to attend the Board of Finance meeting on March 9 when he would be presenting the schools’ budget to that Board.
The public was again given an opportunity to comment on the budget. Â Our reporter asked whether any potential savings from the renegotiation of the transportation contract would be used to reduce the Board’s budget. Â With the Board’s agreement, Philip said that they were looking to continue with the present contract, adding that with only one year left on their 5-year contract they had decided to keep it the way it was.
A resident who said she had been laid off last summer but was fortunate not to have to go back to work suggested that the schools look at using volunteers to help out with the duties that the IAs were presently doing.
Another resident asked whether the New Hartford Schools teachers were still being underpaid relative to other teachers in the state. Â She said that the figures available were for before the present teachers’ contract went into effect in 2008 and that with the effects of the economy on teachers’ pay in other towns, she wanted to know how the local teachers’ salaries now compared. Â There was no response to her question.
Reggie Smith, Board of Finance member, asked whether the Board of Ed would also have a budget at 0% to present to the Board of Finance. Â “That’s what you’re going to hear from the Board of Finance ~ keep that in mind.” Â Reggie said.
First Selectman Dan Jerram, who is also Vice Chairman of the Regional #7 Board of Ed, said that as a father with three children in the schools, he was happy with the service he was receiving, and that he applauded the work being done. Â Turning to the budget, he referred to the “brinksmanship of a pay freeze,” and suggested that the Board look at making a different proposal. Â He reminded the Board that a lot of the lower paid bargaining units would be willing to give back. Â “The town will be hit with extreme costs from all parts of the budget.” He said, adding: Â “Maintain a little bit of hope, go back and try something new and maybe you’ll get some giveback.”
Stan Brobston, a member of the Conservation Commission who identified himself as the son of two teachers, asked the Board to look at other things to cut costs, to look at other efficiencies such as a decentralization of a power supplier which would save 3-4%, and perhaps look at turning the heat down 2-3 degrees. Â Turning his attention to the budget, he said that the rationale for the negotiations that he had heard “doesn’t sound like good negotiation. Â It sounds like bullying to me.” Â And he asked whether the Board would negotiate the early retirement option with the teachers. Â Stan also referred to the school security survey which was worded in a way to elicit responses by those who didn’t want a security system. Â Philip said that there was overwhelming support for a security system and that the survey had been to give an opportunity for those against such a system to voice their opinions. Â Regarding Stan’s suggestion of looking at other ways to save money, Philip said his office was constantly looking for ways to cut costs and that they looked for grants as much as possible.
Stan didn’t receive a response to his question on whether the Board would negotiate with the teachers on the early retirement option and with the opportunity for comments about to end, our reporter asked the Board for their response on whether they would negotiate with the teachers on the early retirement option that the teachers had proposed as a way to save money without making it contingent on their accepting a pay freeze. Â Philip responded that since September the Board had made continued efforts to negotiate with the teachers and that the Board now needed to give a budget to the Board of Finance. Â Our reporter later confirmed with one of the Co-Presidents of the teachers’ union that the early retirement proposal had only been broached with them as part of a pay freeze package which their union members had rejected.
Two final comments from the public were made. Â The first resident suggested that the schools hire several part-time employees as opposed to hiring full-time employees to save money; and the second resident, who identified himself as an engineer, suggested that, as great as it is to have a technology plan, in hard times the Board should consider postponing their technology plan rather than cutting employees: “Machines can’t do what people do!” Â He said.
Conclusion: The Board approved Katie’s motion to: “Accept a 2.71% increase, with unemployment and legal fees not to exceed 3%.” Â Steve and Bryan both opposed the motion.
The New Hartford Schools budget will be presented: By Superintendent Philip O’Reilly to the Board of Finance at that Board’s regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, March 9 at 7:00 p.m. Â The meeting will be held in the Sessions Conference Room at the Town Hall. Â If there are more attendees than the conference room can accommodate, meetings are usually moved to the Senior Center. Â Look for Â a note on the door if the meeting has been moved.
To review the schools’ budget process thus far: Please see our previous reports: