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NEW: Councilors’ Debate on School Budget Continues

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

 

The Worcester City Council pushed back its vote on the school budget another week, in order to give both the City Manager Michael O’Brien and Worcester Public School Superintendent Melinda Boone a chance to “sharpen their pencils” and find an extra $500,000 to cut.  

Amid much discussion, the City Council continued making its way through the city’s budget approval process, tackling budgets of the fire department, police department, and public schools, before ultimately deciding to hold off on its decision for the school department budget.  

Anecdotes and pleas from parents and Worcester residents followed Dr. Boone’s presentation of the fiscal year 2013 budget. Those who spoke all urged the council and city manager to consider the budget process as a single issue one about the citizens – not dueling issues with a city side and a school side.

The Figures

“We certainly recognize there’s no magic wand to give us this funding, and we’ve continued to find ways to reprogram dollars to meet needs. So this year, as I presented to the School Committee and the City Manager, those areas of needs, and after communication with parents, students, business leaders, and others in the community, we have landed on some key areas that I need to request additional funding.” Altogether, Boone’s request was for an additional $5 million.

The City Manager recommended budget is $284,501,812, an increase of $11,414,602 over last year’s budget.

“We continue to watch a reduction in grant funding and the trend over the last couple years of state funding is in sunset,” she said, adding that for too long Council has “put a Band-Aid on this issue.” Boone and other speakers in favor of the proposed budget increase are working against years of minimum local contributions. 

A Heated Matter

Councilor Konnie Lukes was very vocal with the Superintendent on the matter of cutting costs.

“Whoever controls the purse strings controls the agenda,” Lukes began, discussing past funding debates. She accused the School Committee of being unable to solve problems. “I’ve heard of a lot of school committee members telling parents, ‘Take your issues to City Council.’” She said that if that persisted, Council will then need to be more involved in how the money is used.

Boone maintained that the need for fulltime nurses and more teachers is paramount, but Lukes continued to speak curtly with the Superintendent. When Dr. Boone stated that it will be difficult to find extra cuts in the budget, Lukes replied, “Well, it’s going to be tough on this side too. Be prepared to look at your budget very carefully because I haven’t heard of any School Committee members making any cuts.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Council cannot find any more money,” Lukes said.

Enrollment and Inflation

Boone cited enrollment increases and inflation for the increases in need. According to the slides presented with her proposal, the average class size in elementary is 25.8 students.

The school system is up 219 students and inflation has risen 3.65% since last fiscal year.

“Enrollment and inflation represent the $12 million revenue increase. $9.2 million of that is the state’s contribution and local contribution of that is $2.8 million dollars,” Boone explained. “Two-thirds of that funding is through Chapter 70 funding.”

She spoke about the major gaps that still exist including dealing with an increasing population of ESL (English as a Second Language) students.

A Change in Priorities

“A city defines itself and the way it works in making education a priority in the city. We need to make sure this is prioritized.  Being in the bottom across the state is not prioritizing,” said Council John Monfredo. Monfredo cited the city’s 101st rank in budget in the state. “There has to be a collaborative effort on both sides. We cannot have city versus schools. We are all aware we are living in a tough fiscal cycle. I would like to suggest to the Mayor that forming a working group with city and school sides could come up with solutions.”

“Children of the city deserve our support. Support we give them will be their future and the future of our city,” Monfredo said.

Residents Speak Out

Rob Cohane, a member of Citywide Parent Planning and Advisory Committee presented a petition with over 150 signatures in support of 3% over the state mandated budget.

“I believe it’s our responsibility to let the elected reps know what we think. Encourage you to increase it above the state minimum of Chapter 70. Since 1998 the city has consistently contributed near minimum,” he said. “When we compare Worcester to other urban districts we are lagging behind. Woo’s budget gives nothing above the minimum. We must reverse this trend. I understand financing is tight. I cannot tell you where to find the money.”
 

 

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