Thursday, May 2, 2002

More cuts coming for Cape schools

Published in the Current

The Cape Town Council has asked the schools to cut an additional $191,557 from the 2002-2003 budget, leading School Board Chairman George Entwistle to predict staff cuts.

“We would begin to let people go,” Entwistle told the council April 29.

The Town Council, meeting as the Finance Committee, recommended in a 6-1 vote that the school district be allowed an increase of only 4 percent, less than the School Board’s requested 5.43 percent increase. (Councilor Henry Berry was the single no vote.) Councilor John McGinty, who first brought up the 4 percent figure, said when asked that it was an “arbitrary” figure.

Councilors admit the resulting tax increase is the main issue.

“I’m concerned that we not get our taxes so high,” said Councilor Carol Fritz.

The school portion of the property tax increase would have been 93 cents per thousand under the School Board’s proposal. The 4 percent cap means the schools will be 67 cents in an overall increase of 94 cents, or $188 for the owner of a $200,000 home.

“We are also pricing young families right out of this town,” said Town Council Chairman Anne Swift-Kayatta. “This is all about balancing competing needs.”

But she expressed reservations about making deep cuts, saying that a budget increase in a time of flat enrollment can provide opportunity for improvements.

“What we’re doing is gutting the future of the school system,” Swift-Kayatta said.

School Board members stressed that the budget is not actually being increased. Salary and benefits costs are rising 4.2 percent, said Superintendent Tom Forcella. Add in legally mandated special education requirements, he said, and the rest of the budget must go down.

The morning after the four-hour meeting, Forcella, after little sleep, was still surprised. “I expected the Town Council to decrease our budget but not to the extent that they did,” he said. “I didn’t expect anything near $191,000.”

He said program and staff cuts are definitely under discussion, though he said no decisions had been made. He said providing tax relief can be done two ways: increasing revenue or cutting costs. But the schools have limited revenue options, he said.

“The only way to do anything about our budget is to cut expenses,” Forcella said.

The 4 percent budget increase is more than the council had originally indicated it would allow the schools. In a letter March 1, Finance Committee chair and Councilor Jack Roberts had requested the schools, as well as other municipal departments, keep spending hikes to 3 percent.

Town Manager Mike McGovern said a major concern for the council was a projected $600,000 decrease in state funds for the town’s schools.

The final amount of the decrease turned out to be $445,714 – funding which now must be picked up on the tax rate.

“It’s the largest loss we’ve ever experienced,” said Councilor Mary Ann Lynch, adding that this is the largest requested increase in the school budget since 1995.

“I think that might have influenced some of the councilors,” McGovern said.

Councilors said they had made additional cuts in the municipal budget, which is projected to grow by 2.42 percent, to be able to provide more funds to the schools.

School Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Sweeney and School Board Chairman Entwistle made the case for the district’s budget, focusing on contractually obligated salary and benefits increases, increased need for special education services, enrollment pressure on class sizes and the need for a new bus.

Building maintenance and planning for the high school renovation and an addition to Pond Cove School also figure into the budget increase.

About $27,000 in savings is already projected, due to lower-than-expected heating oil costs. A new telephone system may add $6,000 in additional savings, according to school Business Manager Pauline Aportria.

Councilors looked carefully at this year’s $225,000 budget surplus, which would normally be carried over for next year.

That money could be used to pay for unexpected costs, such as an out-of-district placement of a student with special needs, Sweeney said.

Special Education Director Claire LaBrie said the cost for a single out-of-district placement could be between $50,000 and $220,000, depending on the student’s needs and transportation requirements.

Spending that surplus money, while it is included in the budget, would require Town Council approval. An additional $70,000 is designated as “reserve” in the budget, for spending by the School Board without council review, to handle smaller contingencies.

Sweeney said accountants recommend a 2 percent surplus in the budget. Entwistle said the surplus is already below that level and should not be eliminated.

“We are merely following appropriate and recommended accounting principles,” Entwistle said. He warned that without a surplus, any new expenses would require council approval.

“You are tying the hands of the board,” Entwistle said.

Board members reminded councilors that the Town Council’s role is to approve a budget amount, not specific lines in the budget. But Entwistle, frustrated at the size of the cuts, did attempt to get councilors to say what they wanted cut.

Councilor Fritz was disappointed in the rejection of activities or user fees, she said, adding that she wanted to see cuts in administrative or other areas. “I’d like to see it not affecting actual classrooms and kids,” she said.

Fritz also asked if there were any state mandates that could be cut, to protest the state funding cuts.

“There is nothing that we’re being mandated to do that isn’t the right thing to do,” Entwistle said.

Referring to a proposal at the high school that would hire two educational technicians to supervise study halls, giving teachers more time for collaboration, Councilor Lynch said, “this is not the year to eliminate the high school teachers proctoring the study hall.”

“I think there are some savings in there. I just don’t know where,” Councilor Penny Carson said.

School Board member Susan Steinman warned that things cut this year would be back next year. She said she is worried about losing ground this year that would then have to be made up in the future.

“I picture this year as treading water,” Steinman said. “I don’t want to cut it out now and have to beg for it next year.”

School Board member Jennifer DeSena suggested the town make more increases to municipal fees, to give more money to the schools.

Councilor McGinty was for that, and Carson said that if the county budget were lower, “that would definitely go to the schools.”

Councilor Roberts asked if there was any move to raise the total tax increase – municipal plus school spending — back from 94 cents to 99, to provide more funds to the schools, but found no takers. The council had originally set a goal of raising the rate less than a dollar this year.

But the School Board was not happy. “I just feel like there’s not a lot of trust. I’m disappointed,” said board member Elaine Moloney, adding that the council often seems to cut 2 percent off whatever amount the School Board comes up with.

“No one enjoys where we are tonight,” Lynch said, as the four-hour meeting came to a close.

The public will have a chance to comment May 13 as part of the regular Town Council meeting, which will be in the Town Council Chambers at 7:30 p.m. The budget will be formally approved in a special council meeting May 28, also in the Council Chambers at 7:30 p.m.

In other business, the Finance Committee recommended a 2.42 percent spending increase in the municipal budget, by a vote of 6 to 1, with Councilor McGinty opposed.

It also recommended that the county budget not be approved, by a vote of 7-0. Town Manager McGovern said the town is legally obligated to pay the county assessment, which is rising 21.4 percent, or $134,950.